Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has outlined the Government’s plans for a Pacific reset, warning New Zealand must not take its relationship with the region for granted as more countries compete for influence and create “strategic anxiety”.

Peters’ address has served as a veiled warning of the threat posed by growing Chinese influence in the region, as he took a poke at the country’s Belt and Road Initiative and said “need and temptation” was leading some Pacific countries to take greater risks.

Speaking to the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Peters said the Pacific was both “a region of opportunity and empowerment” and one “challenged by a dizzying array of social and environmental problems”.

The Pacific was important to New Zealand in large part due to the country’s Polynesian character, with one in five Kiwis having Māori or Pasifika heritage.

‘A shared Pacific destiny’

“As part of the Pacific family, New Zealand is conscious that our identity, our national security and our prosperity are inextricably linked. We have, in a very genuine sense, a shared Pacific destiny.”

In addition, New Zealand’s national security was directly affected by the Pacific’s stability, with growing concerns about trans-national security issues such as drug production, cybercrime and gangs.

Improving the economic and social wellbeing of Pacific Island countries would allow them to build on their resilience and self-reliance, Peters said.

There had been significant changes in the Pacific during the decade since he was last in charge of foreign affairs, including the way New Zealand was perceived by the countries there.

“So much is changing in the Pacific and sometimes not for the best. Need and temptation often leads to greater risk than prudence would suggest.”

“This reflects a new generation of post-colonial Pacific leaders who are increasingly confident, independent and assertive regionally and internationally.”

That had led to New Zealand’s influence moving from that of a “post-colonial power” to a more mature relationship, he said.

However, he warned the Pacific had become “an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by Great Power ambition” – a change creating “strategic anxiety” not just in New Zealand, but among other Western countries.

“So much is changing in the Pacific and sometimes not for the best. Need and temptation often leads to greater risk than prudence would suggest.”

Peters’ comments follow sharper remarks made by Australian Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who accused the Chinese of building “useless buildings” and “roads that go nowhere” in the Pacific – comments which attracted swift criticism from Beijing.

In unscripted remarks, Australian media reported Peters as saying he regretted the speed with which the previous government had signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar project aimed at increasing connectivity between the superpower and the rest of the world.

“They couldn’t have known exactly what it all meant.”

‘Pacific reset’

To address the changing environment, Peters said the Government would undertake what he called a “Pacific reset”, a new strategy to the region based on New Zealand values, increased support, and greater coordination with New Zealand’s other partners.

New Zealand had to respect Pacific countries’ desire to manage their own international relations, while also maintaining an emphasis on areas like human rights, the rule of law, transparency, good governance and the promotion of democracy.

Part of the reset would revolve around what Peters called “back to basics diplomacy”, with Ardern and other Cabinet ministers set to join him in spending a considerable amount of time in the Pacific this year.

The Government would also provide a high degree of access to Pacific leaders who visited New Zealand, he said.

Cabinet had agreed to adopt a set of five principles which would govern diplomatic relations with the Pacific, based on understanding, friendship, mutual benefit, collective ambition, and sustainability.

“There might not be votes in it [increasing aid], but it is the right thing to do and it shows New Zealand’s seriousness in being an active and good neighbour.”

Another vital component of the strategy would be “putting our money where our mouth is”.

Peters argued New Zealand’s credibility as a humanitarian donor was becoming stretched, with the country’s aid as a proportion of gross national income dropping from 0.3 percent in 2008 to 0.25 percent in 2016.

New Zealand was the Pacific’s second-largest donor, directing 60 percent of its development spending there, and needed to expand the size of its official development assistance programme to help the countries there improve their resilience “and through that their autonomy”.

“There might not be votes in it, but it is the right thing to do and it shows New Zealand’s seriousness in being an active and good neighbour.”

Peters said it was crucial that New Zealand’s shift started now. In 2018, elections were taking place in the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, while Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Fiji were all hosting important international forums.

It was important that countries pooled their resources, Peters said, pointing to the collective response to Tropical Cyclone Gita from New Zealand and Australia as a demonstration of the benefits of collaboration.

“Our reaction to these events required no reservation at all, it was a natural reaction in the hour of need. It is also a simple reflection of our shared geography.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment