Pacific Islanders play instruments on the Beach

Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands Sign a Historic Sister-City Agreement

The Pacific

The governments of the Cook Islands and Hawai‘i reached a sister-city agreement between Honolulu and Avarua, Rarotonga, on June 7, 2024, marking a historic agreement as the first sister-city partnership under the 7 for 70 Program, an initiative that seeks to deepen ties between the United States and the Pacific Islands.

The City and County of Honolulu announced a historic agreement to establish a sister-city partnership with Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands on June 7th, 2024. The signing ceremony took place during the opening of the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPAC) between Mayor Rick Blangiardi on behalf of Honolulu and Prime Minister Mark Brown on behalf of the Cook Islands. This agreement holds historic significance, as it is the 37th sister-city partnership for Honolulu and the first sister-city agreement under “the 7 for 70 Program,” an initiative launched by Sister Cities International (SCI), the US Department of State, and the White House National Security Council. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of SCI, “the 7 for 70 Program” was created with the goal of forming at least seven new sister cities with the Pacific Islands countries by 2026, further promoting bilateral relationships between the United States and the Pacific Islands nations.

This agreement will deepen ties through cultural, educational, and economic exchanges while fostering shared historical ties and mutual traditions to encourage more people-to-people connections. The agreement also states that Honolulu and Avarua will engage in mutual efforts to support sustainable and regenerative tourism, the preservation of natural resources, climate change issues, and other best practices deemed beneficial for both parties.

During the signing ceremony, Mayor Blangiardi of Honolulu stated that this agreement was more than a mere formality, as it represented a “heartfelt commitment to building bridges and deepening our ties across the Pacific.” He expressed his excitement for the upcoming collaborations, saying, “With our shared Polynesian roots and values, this partnership feels like a reunion of extended ‘ohana. I am genuinely excited about the meaningful cultural exchange, collaborative economic ventures, and environmental initiatives that will strengthen both our communities.”

Agreeing with Mayor Blangiardi, Prime Minister Brown stated, “Our friendship between our people is like the strand of the fiber in the woven net.”

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who also attended the FestPAC as a keynote speaker, joined both Mayor Blangiardi and Prime Minister Brown on stage and gave a commitment to maintaining meaningful and secure relationships with the Cook Islands.

In recent years, Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands have been bolstering their friendships through a series of cooperation and official visits. A notable development in this partnership was a landmark announcement from Hawaiian Airlines to restore their flight service to the Cook Islands. This move will facilitate travels between 15 US continental destinations and the northern Rarotonga Island (where Avarua is located) through connections in Honolulu. Less than six months later, the Airline launched a nonstop weekly service between Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands, further solidifying stronger bonds between the two cities.

Most importantly, during the two-day US-Pacific Islands Forum Leader’s Summit in September 2023, the Biden Administration unveiled an ambitious partnership strategy aimed at developing relations with Pacific Island nations. A pivotal component of this plan included the US recognition of the Cook Islands as a sovereign state, marking the first establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and the Cook Islands.

The move signifies a crucial first step for both the United States and the Cook Islands to foster security and prosperity in the Pacific region. The Biden Administration anticipates these partnerships to address pressing issues faced by the Cook Islands residents, including maritime security, climate change, and illegal fishing. This will also increase access for the Cook Islands to receive more development assistance funding from the United States. This establishment of diplomatic relations reflects the US dedication to building resilient partnerships with Pacific Island nations amid China’s rising influence in the region in recent years.

As the first sister-city agreement signed under the “7 for 70 Program,” this partnership between Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands sets a positive precedent for future collaborations between the United States and the Pacific Islands. This milestone marks a significant step in the broader US strategy of enhanced engagement and cooperation across the Pacific, paving the way for stronger relationships in the future and increasing US presence in the region.

Aom Boonphatthanasoonthorn is a Summer 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy with a national security certificate at the Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.