Winston Peters sat down with Sam Sachdeva in Rarotonga to discuss his vision for the Pacific, Chinese influence in the region, and New Zealand’s duty as an international leader.

If Jacinda Ardern is the daughter of Niue, could Winston Peters be the son of the Pacific?

The Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader was feted wherever he went on Ardern’s Pacific mission.

In Samoa, they welcomed “Vaovasamanaia Winston Peters” (a chiefly title he received in 2007); in the Cook Islands, Prime Minister Henry Puna praised Peters for his strong support of changes to superannuation eligibility while in opposition.

Almost everywhere, there was a steady stream of locals keen for photos with him, while Ardern made sure to mention his presence within the first minute of most of her speeches.

The affinity feels mutual: eschewing his typical get-up of a pinstriped suit and pocket square, Peters looked comfortable in loose-fitting island shirts, and even in the more flamboyant outfits provided to him.

Speaking to Newsroom at a Rarotonga resort, with the waves lapping against the sandy shores in the background, Peters is glowing about his ties to the region.

“I do feel at home here: they’re countries where I’ve spent a lot of time in and with the people over a long period.

“It’s great to be back and see them and see how the people have developed, their economies have developed, their systems have developed.”

Pacific people, he says, are incredibly hospitable, with “serious values based on family and community”.

Winston Peters says New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific must change to a true partnership.

It’s no surprise then that Peters is spearheading what has been dubbed the Government’s “Pacific reset”.

Launching the policy change at a speech in Sydney, Peters spoke of “a shared Pacific destiny” and promised increased political engagement and aid.

It’s a message he says has been received well by politicians he met in Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands.

“They’re delighted to learn that we had changed from, as I put in that speech, donor-recipient to being partners, what I would call a future consortium of Pacific partners for the interests and wellbeing of the people of this part of the world.”

The region faces huge challenges, not just related to climate change, that go to the heart of the Pacific’s wellbeing, he says.

“We all need to step up and make the area a better, safer, more prosperous place with better security – we’re in the middle of a sales pitch here that is deadly serious as to its objective.”

One of the question marks Peters will have to answer is how exactly to turn relationships with Pacific countries into true partnerships.

Recent reports on New Zealand’s Pacific aid have mooted the idea of putting more funding into general budget support to give island countries greater control, instead of funding initiatives on a case-by-case basis.

“I’ve seen whole governments corrupted, this is past times, by offshore interventions, and that country wasn’t China.”

It’s not a school of thought that finds favour with Peters.

“General budget support without specific objectives would concern me in the same way that we’re not running the regional development programme in New Zealand without knowing exactly what our objectives are, what the purpose is…

“You don’t give aid just to prop up an economy, you give aid to grow an economy.”

He says New Zealand investment can bring in more money from the private sector, citing the announcement of $11 million of government money going into Tonga’s electricity redevelopment.

“We’ve got a chance for that to be the beginning of a significant further fundraising programme for the same objective that will be an excess of $50 million once it’s finished.”

It makes sense then that Peters expresses some sympathy for the National government’s focus on economic development in the Pacific – although he’s not prepared to let them off the hook entirely.

“I’ve got no sympathy for their lack of money, where one year aid went down by $92 million – now that creates a serious crisis for this part of the world, and bear in mind we will not hold our head up high or be the country we should be if we don’t intervene now.”

New Zealand cannot be respected by other countries who provide foreign aid if our share continues to decline, he says.

Winston Peters has said we must have our eyes wide open to external actors in the Pacific creating “strategic anxiety”.

One of those countries providing cash to the Pacific is China, who Peters may have been referring to in his speech when he spoke about external actors creating “strategic anxiety” – not that he’s willing to confirm as much.

“I don’t specify countries because if you look at the Pacific over a long period of time, there have been some international interventions from a range of countries that have been seriously unhelpful.

“I’ve seen whole governments corrupted, this is past times, by offshore interventions, and that country wasn’t China.”

He says the key to managing potential conflicts in the Pacific is ensuring donors are on the same page about what they intend to achieve.

“If we have similar objectives, then our money will go a whole lot further; if we have disparate, diverse objectives the results simply won’t work.”

New Zealand needs closer relationships with other Pacific donors like Australia, the United States, Japan, and “for that matter” China.

One area where Peters has specifically admitted to concerns about Chinese aid is Te Mato Vai, a trilateral aid project involving China, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

During his Pacific reset speech, Peters spoke of “big problems” with the project, and he says there is “serious testing going on” to check the quality of the Chinese construction, with all countries likely to have a better idea of the situation by the end of the month.

“We’ve got to be a seriously sound international citizen, and one of the reasons why I’ve placed so much store on the Pacific is this is the area that will give us the right to be a leading international citizen, as small as you are.”

“Putting my cards on the table, I’d have to be sure that the Chinese government knew about this, and let’s be honest, they may not – I don’t want to rush to judgment until I know.”

Amidst fears about outside influence from the Chinese in the Pacific, Peters is quick to note that New Zealand possesses some influencers of its own.

“One of great forces in Tongan society is the Tongan society in New Zealand, that’s where an enormous amount of remittance money is coming from, and that’s the same for Samoa.

“So when you talk about outside influences, bear in mind that we have massive outside influences on Samoa.”

Interestingly, Peters says he has got a plan to make use of that influence, although he is cagey about the details.

“I won’t say what it is … I’ve got to get it signed off first.”

Winston Peters says we should lift barriers to Pacific countries’ exports to New Zealand.

He does highlight barriers to Pacific exports into New Zealand as an area which could be improved.

“You have to bear in mind that they’ve got products, that because we haven’t made and MPI hasn’t made the entry of their products into New Zealand a priority, they’re seriously handicapped – they’ve got a market, it’s their own people in New Zealand.”

The Pacific is his top priority in part due to the outsized influence New Zealand can have there, he says.

“We’ve got to be a seriously sound international citizen, and one of the reasons why I’ve placed so much store on the Pacific is this is the area that will give us the right to be a leading international citizen, as small as you are.”

That international citizenship looks set to get a boost in May, with Peters dropping far-from-subtle hints about increases to aid and the general foreign affairs budget.

He says there will first be a “serious reexamination of where we’re spending now”.

“As a former Treasurer, one will always have concerns.”

No doubt, the opposition will have concerns about how any new money is doled out by Peters, and there is little room for error.

But if he can make good on his push for a Pacific reset, that could prove to be one of the coalition Government’s finest foreign policy achievements.

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

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