By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will venture to the South Pacific this week as she takes Washington's bid to reassert itself against China to a remote corner of the world where the power rivalry is increasingly apparent.
Clinton will lead a U.S. government team to the Cook Islands for the August 31 meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, a group of 16 independent and self-governing territories scattered across a huge expanse of ocean east of New Zealand, the State Department said on Tuesday.
Clinton's trip will also include stops in Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor and China, all of which are expected to include discussions on the South China Sea, where competing territorial claims by Beijing and its neighbors have created Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.
"We don't want to see the disputes in the South China Sea or anywhere else settled by intimidation, by force. We want to see them settled at the negotiating table," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
"And we have also consistently been calling for increasing transparency in the Chinese military posture."
Beijing has accused Washington of sending the wrong signals on the South China Sea, part of its push back against the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia that many Chinese analysts see as a campaign to contain rising Chinese power and influence in the region.
In the South Pacific, Clinton will have a chance to personally emphasize the benefits of U.S. friendship to a group of tiny nations that regularly line up with Washington on international issues but which are also now being heavily courted by Beijing.
The United States hopes to boost the forum as a regional alliance to combat shared threats such as climate change, encourage economic development and protect marine stocks in the face of overfishing.
China has nevertheless been scaling up its economic assistance to Pacific Island states, pledging a total of more than $600 million since 2005, according to figures compiled by Australia's Lowy Institute.
Clinton's hosts in the Cook Islands -- a self-governing territory associated with New Zealand -- will be able to show off a new, Chinese-financed courthouse and police headquarters while other island states have received grants for official cars, airport repairs, hospital construction and language courses.
While much of China's historic engagement with the region has been to counter diplomatic advances by its rival, Taiwan, it has now moved beyond that, said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East West Center in Hawaii.
"It is now probably more accurate to see the growth of Chinese influence in the South Pacific as not necessarily part of a scripted and controlled plan by the Chinese government," Roy said.
"It has become broader, part of China's economic and government interests going abroad and seeking the room that comes with being an emerging power."
Clinton's trip will take her out of the United States as Democrats gather next week for a convention to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term. Clinton, who as America's top diplomat was not expected to attend, has said she plans to step down at the end of Obama's current term.
But she will stand in for Obama himself at a meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vladivostok on September 8-9, the State Department said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)
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