Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rarotonga Aug. 31

When Clinton's delegation for this week's meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the population of Rarotonga jumped by 5 percent.

The Cook Islands are a tiny country, and Rarotonga -- the main island -- can be circled on the main road in 45 minutes. Clinton's arrival has caused some logistical problems, such as forcing the gov't of the Cook Islands to borrow enough cars to make up her official motorcade. And, with just the one main road, the motorcade only has so many places to go: up and down the island, stopping at different hotels where different events take place.

It is such a change from most of the places we go! I'm sitting outside just before dawn, and there are roosters crowing all over the place. Just across the street is a stretch of absolutely pristine beach -- palm lined as advertised -- and the surf breaks further out on the reef that encircles the island.

It was a long trip to get here though. We left DC at around 10:30 in the morning, flew five hours to San Diego, and then flew on another 9 hours to get to Tahiti. There's something ridiculous about going to Tahiti and only staying for one hour, but that is what we did ...walking around on the airport tarmac as the plane was refueled and the French gendarmes kept watch to make sure we didn't try to sneak out into the island without passing immigration. After that, it was another three hours to get here ... finally arriving, about 20 hours later, at the small Rarotonga airport.

There were hula dancers to greet Clinton on arrival, but she avoided the more formal welcoming ceremony that other leaders got, which was to be raised on a litter by brawny Polynesian warriors and paraded around. I think her political people were just as happy there were no pictures of that.

Because there are so many of us and so few big hotels, we are spread out over a number of small guest houses. The press got a decent one -- clean, just across the street from the beach, no nonsense. It is absolutely fine and it does have a sort of tropical holiday feeling to it: no televisions, only intermittent Internet access, dogs and cats wandering around.

The island has two major bus routes: "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" and you pass lots of surf shops and mom and pop restaurants. We did go past one tiny building which advertised itself as the Cook Islands National Olympic Committee, but I wasn't able to get an answer on whether they actually had sent any athletes to London...

I took a morning walk on the beach, and then the day began: as usual, meetings, meetings and more meetings, but these all had a sort of relaxed vibe. The Pacific Islands Forum itself was held in what looked like a big indoor basketball court, and most of the other meetings were in various hotels. The whole point of Clinton coming here was to fly the U.S. flag in (yet another) region where China is making a big play for influence. Chinese money is building schools, hospitals, airport runways and government buildings across the Pacific, and apparently the Australians and the New Zealanders said it was essential for Clinton to come to show that Washington was still (as they like to say) a "resident power" in the Pacific.

Perhaps because she is going to Beijing in four days, Clinton was fairly measured on China in her remarks here: saying "the Pacific is big enough for all of us" and that the U.S. hopes to work more cooperatively with Beijing in development and maritime security projects in the region.

But China's approach is so different -- and often involves loans and grants that have virtually no conditions attached -- that it is hard to see how the Pacific Islanders will resist moving more closely into Beijing's embrace. There was also a senior U.S. naval delegation here, making the point that it is U.S. power which has guaranteed the freedom of the sealanes since the end of the Second World War. I don't think anybody anticipates a real brush up of Chinese and U.S. forces in the region, but the military dimension at the conference was interesting.

After more meetings, a press conference with the New Zealand prime minister, and a event on "black pearl" cultivation, we were finally finished. The Internet connectivity is so wobbly that it was almost impossible to file anything until the end of the day -- a headache in paradise, but given that it is Labor Day weekend at home and this is such a marginal story, I don't think anybody really noticed.

We had breakfast at the gas station next to the hotel -- where the same granny, with a flower in her hair, pumped the gas and fried up the eggs. The whole place has a very relaxed feel which is a nice change.

Today, amazingly, we are off. Clinton has no public events, and I think her team are just trying to recover from the long flight and prepare for tomorrow's equally long flight to Jakarta via Brisbane. But the press has decided to make the most of it and we are setting off for some snorkeling/diving this morning. The weather report had threatened rain, but the sun is up and it looks like it will be a fantastic day!

More later, probably from Jakarta.