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State Department Must Send Right Signals at Pacific Islands Forum

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Is the United States upping its diplomatic engagement in the Pacific? One would think so, given rumors that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is considering heading to the Cook Islands for next month's Pacific Island Forum (PIF). The problem: Her attendance could send the wrong message to regional partners; thereby undermining U.S. influence in the Pacific.

Last year, "the United States sent its largest and highest-level delegation ever" to the PIF. This strong showing was seen by many as an indicator of a larger and more substantive shift in U.S. regional engagement. Unfortunately, this shift (like the larger Asian pivot) has yet to materialize -- leading some regional diplomats to question the U.S. approach.

The U.S. can ill-afford to repeat these mistakes. The Pacific Islands countries sit at the geopolitical crossroads of the Asia-Pacific century. China and other Asian powers will capitalize on further American missteps; eroding the power and influence of the U.S. and its allies in the process.

If the U.S. intends to lead in the Pacific, there is no question that Secretary Clinton should head the U.S. delegation. However, she should not do so empty handed. The U.S. Government must recognize that the size of its diplomatic contingents provide little more than talking points at Beltway think tanks. The region is really looking for the U.S. to back its diplomatic posturing with serious on-the-ground investments.

The problem for the State Department is how to muster the political and financial resources necessary to make such investments in an election year marred by escalating conflict in the Middle East and global economic uncertainty. U.S diplomats must also overcome an entrenched American mindset that takes for granted Western power and influence in the Pacific -- a remnant of the Cold War where the region was seen as a strategic backwater. Neither will be easy.

If the State Department cannot overcome these challenges and match regional expectations, the U.S. should not send Secretary Clinton to Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

Instead, the U.S. should send a lower ranking diplomat, such as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. His presence would much more accurately reflect the present U.S. commitment to the region; sending the right signal to regional partners.

Eddie Walsh is an accredited foreign correspondent. He currently serves as a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He also writes extensively and speaks regularly on Asia-Pacific Affairs. Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.