POSTED: 5:55 a.m. HST, Aug 17, 2012
WELLINGTON, New Zealand >> The tiny Cook Islands are proving almost too small for Hillary Clinton.
The South Pacific island chain, home to just 10,000 people, is buzzing as it prepares for the expected visit of the U.S. secretary of state, the biggest dignitary to stop by since Queen Elizabeth II nearly four decades ago. Hosting such a high-profile guest and her entourage, however, is posing problems for a government that owns just three small SUVs and is scrambling to borrow cars from residents to create a proper motorcade.
Clinton is expected to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, an annual meeting of Pacific leaders that begins Aug. 27 on the main island of Rarotonga. Sending such a high-level delegation would emphasize Washington's so-called Pacific pivot, a policy shift in which it's placing increased emphasis on trade, humanitarian aid and military presence in the region as it seeks to capitalize upon and counterbalance the rise of many Pacific and Asian nations including China.
The U.S. Embassy in Wellington on Friday declined to confirm whether Clinton would be part of its delegation, but Cook Island officials are preparing as if she is coming.
Cook government spokesman Derek Fox said the islands are expecting about 500 people at the forum from 57 countries. Because tourism is the Cook Island's major industry, he said, the islands are well prepared to feed and otherwise look after the arrivals.
Transportation, however, is proving difficult. Robert Graham, a government official who is coordinating those arrangements, said he's managed to borrow six SUVs from locals, whom he's paying a small fee. He said he's still on the hunt for one more SUV to bolster the fleet to 10, noting that the vehicles will be used not only for Clinton if she comes, but also for other leaders at the forum.
He said he's also borrowed about nine other late-model cars from locals after the main rental agency ran short on high-end vehicles.
He said the U.S. wanted larger SUVs but all they have on the islands are smaller model Toyotas and Suzukis.
"We are a really small island and they're wanting these really big SUVs," Graham said. "We have tried our best to accommodate and help."
Graham said he's been training drivers — both government workers and private volunteers — to act as chauffeurs for the leaders. They've been doing training laps around Rarotonga, which has a total road circumference of just 32 kilometers (20 miles).
Jaewynn McKay, who is coordinating planning for the forum, said she's been showing around an advance team from the U.S. Embassy in Wellington this week who are helping prepare for a possible visit by Clinton.
She said the biggest challenge was finding Clinton somewhere appropriate to stay that would also accommodate her entourage.
"I understand she usually travels with 90, but they've had to lessen their footprint on this occasion," McKay said. "We had to tell them we just don't have the space."