Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed Thursday to the remote Cook Islands on a rare trip to show renewed US interest in the South Pacific, where China has demonstrated its growing clout.
Clinton was to devote three days to the islands -- whose population of 11,000 is about the same size as the US Foreign Service -- as she becomes the first top US diplomat to take part in an annual Pacific island summit.
She completed the first of three legs in the 19-hour flight to the remote South Pacific with a refueling stop at a Marine base in San Diego, California.
The Cook Islands stop, at the start of a tour through Asia, has been full of logistical headaches as her staff struggled to rustle up enough cars and hotel rooms during one of the biggest events in the archipelago's history.
Clinton will be joined by Admiral Sam Locklear, head of US Pacific Command, and will announce a series of new aid initiatives focused on the environment and other areas, a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.
The burst of US attention comes as President Barack Obama's administration puts a focus on the Asia-Pacific, devoting US military and political capital to shaping the future of a region where China is rapidly rising.
While often overlooked strategically, the South Pacific is a gateway into the fast-growing region, and the 16 nations in the Pacific Islands Forum offer an ample source of votes at the United Nations and other international fora.
The United States has deep ties with the region due to World War II and its territory of American Samoa but it only recently resumed assistance after shutting its main aid program in the South Pacific in 1994.
US partners Australia, Japan and New Zealand remain major donors to the South Pacific. But China has curried favor by imposing few conditions on its low-interest loans, which according to Australia's Lowy Institute have totaled more than $600 million in pledges since 2005.
Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi earlier this year praised China as a better friend to the region and said that the United States had neglected the South Pacific because it does not have wars.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Clinton's trip put teeth in the Obama administration's vowed "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region.
"You can't really be a Pacific power, you can't be 'pivoting' toward the Asia-Pacific, without showing up at these events," he said.
Bower said that US efforts in the South Pacific served as a "down payment" to Australia and New Zealand, which have historically taken leading roles in the islands and have assisted the United States in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Clinton will meet Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key while in the Cook Islands, a US official said.
A Washington-based diplomat from the region said Clinton's visit was considered "very significant" in the South Pacific as a sign of renewed US engagement.
"The Americans are very well-liked in the region for legacy reasons from World War II onwards. If you look at voting records in the United Nations, this is one of the most pro-US regions in the world," the diplomat said.
"But I think there has been a growing sense in the past 20 years or so that the United States has been preoccupied with other parts of the world and a sense that the US commitment to the region may be waning," he said.
"One question that we always have is going to be whether there is some substance behind the rhetorical and ceremonial" aspects of the summit, he said on condition of anonymity.
One of the most pressing issues in the South Pacific is climate change, with some islands fearing for their very survival if water levels rise.
The Obama administration has launched aid projects to help the South Pacific adapt to climate change, but at UN-led talks, island states have pushed the United States and other major emitters to do more to curb their own emissions.
After the Cook Islands, Clinton heads to Indonesia, China, East Timor, Brunei and then an Asia-Pacific summit in the Russian port of Vladivostok.
The State Department said Clinton would press for peaceful resolutions of a myriad disputes between China and its neighbors. China's state media has criticized Clinton's trip, accusing her of trying to contain the rising power.