The recognition of small Pacific states by the United States reshapes its relations with New Zealand

The Cook Islands have given up their dream of membership in the United Nations and with it greater autonomy and greater influence on the world stage. New Zealand, the country that ruled the tiny Pacific nation and still wields power there, has rejected her repeated pleas.

But now that President Biden has delivered his seal of approval — with formal recognition of the Cook Islands at a summit of Pacific nations in September — the country of 18,000 people has changed course, moving toward joining international bodies with renewed vigor.

What began as Washington’s attempt to counter Chinese influence with America’s acquiescence has now led to a clear shift in New Zealand policy and the creation of a project akin to a separate nationhood for the Cook Islands, even as its residents remain New Zealand citizens.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said in an interview that the country now plans to apply for full membership of the IMF “at least by next year” and that his diplomats are “talking to key, critical people” about UN membership.

He said, “We put it off.” “But the US announcement put that back on the agenda,” he added.

Mr. Brown attributed Mr. Biden’s statement to an improved American understanding of the Cook Islands’ relationship with New Zealand. He also noted the fact that “the Pacific is a very debatable region right now” — a reference to the growing battle for influence between the United States and China.

Until recently, Western countries neglected the Pacific region, Brown said, and pushed many countries to work with Beijing, although “it’s no secret that China has a program of expanding its influence around the world through these development programmes.”

Against this backdrop, Mr. Brown wants the International Monetary Fund and UN membership to partly ensure his country can access new forms of support such as a fund to help poor countries deal with climate catastrophes, which richer nations agreed to set up at the UN climate conference. the last one.

The Cook Islands, which lie about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, have long had to move around larger powers. First annexed by Britain in 1901, it soon became a colony of New Zealand. In 1965, New Zealand allowed it self-government under free association, a status short of full independence in which Cook Islanders hold New Zealand citizenship and New Zealand retains some responsibility for the country’s foreign affairs.

In 2001, Helen Clark, New Zealand’s Prime Minister at the time, announced that in order to apply for membership in the United Nations, Cook Islanders would have to give up their New Zealand citizenship, which was a bad deal for them. Ms Clarke’s successor, John Key, said in 2015 that New Zealand would not support UN membership for the islands.

“We can’t see how the UN would basically support people who hold New Zealand passports and therefore are not independent in the nature of independence and have a separate seat,” Mr Key said at the time.

This opposition was motivated in part by fears that UN membership would “reduce the basis on which New Zealand is entitled to exercise influence and seek control,” Caroline MacDonald, New Zealand’s former ambassador to Fiji, wrote in her 2018 doctoral thesis.

Ms MacDonald also writes that New Zealand has previously mobilized opposition against UN membership of the Cook Islands by saying it could promote similar bids by the Palestinians or remnants of the colonial empires of the US, Britain and France.

But after Mr. Biden’s announcement, New Zealand appears to have changed course. New Zealand will “support and support the aspirations of the ‘Pacific nations’ as far as they ask of us,” said Obito William Siew, New Zealand’s Minister for the Pacific Peoples.

Nana Mahuta, New Zealand’s foreign minister, denied any change in policy, but also said New Zealand had “demonstrated its willingness to engage” with UN membership for the Cook Islands.

Ms Mahuta also noted that New Zealand felt pressure after Mr Biden’s statement, saying: “It has been clear since the United States formally recognized the Cook Islands that this has opened the door to deeper and more direct engagement within the international community.”

Mr Brown, the prime minister, said he was confident US recognition meant any remaining barriers could be overcome. “It would be very, very difficult to say that this country should not be a member of the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund,” he said.

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