As China starts to train Solomon Islands police following a controversial security pact between the two countries, New Zealand is working on a defence deal of its own, Sam Sachdeva reports
New Zealand and the Solomon Islands have agreed to start developing a maritime security “work plan” in the wake of China’s own defence pact with the Pacific nation, Defence Minister Peeni Henare has revealed to Newsroom.
Henare says he will also make the case for additional investment into Aotearoa’s military forces, as a number of New Zealand’s partners respond to the volatile geopolitical environment by boosting their defence budgets.
The decision of the Solomon Islands government to sign a security deal with China, and the Asian superpower’s stymied efforts to get a Pacific-wide agreement across the line, have caused anxiety within Western governments concerned about the militarisation of the region.
On Sunday, the Solomon Star reported the country’s police officers had started training with Chinese instructors this month.
Henare met Solomon Islands national security minister Anthony Veke on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue last weekend, with Pacific security raised by a number of attendees including Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
Speaking to Newsroom in Singapore after the conclusion of the prestigious defence summit, Henare said the two countries had agreed on “a small work plan” for increased collaboration in the maritime security space.
“I won’t go into the details of the work plan but it’s a positive sign, and they’ve got a job to do now to follow up with that particular piece of work.”
Henare said the Solomons delegation did not raise why the country had chosen to sign the security deal with China, but made it clear that maritime security was one of their top priorities.
“That’s what was the number one theme in our conversation, so I said, ‘Okay, how do we help?’, and that was the creation of the work plan I just described.”
“We went in making sure that they [China] knew our stance on making the Pacific safe, secure, and supporting the independence of those sovereign nations in the Pacific and I made that point very clear on a number of occasions.”
– Peeni Henare
He also met Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe, with the talks initially scheduled to last 30 minutes but stretching to an hour-long conversation.
The bilateral with Wei was Henare’s first meeting at Shangri-La, although he said that was a matter of “fortuitous” timing rather than premeditation by New Zealand officials.
“To have that dialogue, to have a face to face conversation, is really important…
“[The meeting] was direct: General Wei clearly came in with an agenda and I respect that, that’s their right, but we went in making sure that they knew our stance on making the Pacific safe, secure, and supporting the independence of those sovereign nations in the Pacific and I made that point very clear on a number of occasions.”
Wei had also raised concerns about New Zealand being drawn closer to the stance of the United States and Australia, Henare said. In response, he had pointed to comments made by US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about the strength of the US-NZ relationship, while emphasising the need for dialogue with China to continue.
“I made it clear that the only way we could continue to have good discussions, meaningful discussions was if there was trust and transparency and openness. I said, ‘My door’s always open to talk’, because it’s important they hear our point of view, and where I can, convey some of the messages and feedback I get from our Pacific Island family.”
It was important for Chinese representatives to attend events like Shangri-La and engage with their US counterparts, he said, given the stakes at play.
“That was one thing I heard constantly was, ‘Hey, at least they’re here’. The alternative is they’re not, and we all sit around sort of guessing.”
‘Making the case’ for military investment
Speaking about the commitments made by some of New Zealand’s partners and the risk of a capability gap growing, Henare said he had made that point to his Cabinet colleagues and the Government would need to make a decision on what more investment was needed.
“My job is to make and put that best case forward. I know in my discussions with the Minister of Finance, he wants me to do that work so that all things can be considered and he’ll look to that, but of course, those are decisions that are coming.”
A review of New Zealand’s defence policy, the terms of reference for which were due to be finalised soon, would be shaped by his conversations at Shangri-La and the key themes of the summit.
However, Henare said none of his counterparts had raised the issue of New Zealand’s defence spend in his time there, while he was unconvinced of the merits of increasing military spending to reach two percent of GDP – a Nato benchmark being adopted by other countries.
“Matching our capability with our priorities and government objectives is the number one, key thing to do. That would be, I think, not a very smart move to set a target at this point.”
Despite identifying “an underlying tension” throughout the event, Henare said he was more confident than before in the unity of New Zealand’s partners and willingness to tackle the big issues in the region.
He intended to ramp up his own discussions with some of the ministers he had met at Shangri-La, as the issues at stake could not wait until next year’s event.
► Sam Sachdeva attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore courtesy of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation