'China is not going anywhere': Questions over NZ's Pacific relations

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 31 May 2022, 8:15pm

'China is not going anywhere': Questions over NZ's Pacific relations

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 31 May 2022, 8:15pm

An expert says despite Pacific Island nations rejecting a broad pact promoted by China much had been gained in recent discussions and warned New Zealand needed to reassess its position with China-Pacific relations "only getting stronger". 

Meanwhile, another Pacific expert also says the recent developments have raised questions about whether the "depth" of New Zealand's relationships matches the rhetoric. 

On Monday, 10 Pacific nations turned down a sweeping new proposal from China covering everything from security to fisheries, with some in the region expressing deep concerns and stating such matters needed to be discussed at a regional setting, such as the Pacific Islands Forum. 

Shortly after Monday's virtual leaders' meeting, China published its position paper for the region, which crucially did not include some key measures in the draft communique, including free trade, joint policing and cybersecurity co-operation. 

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) appears on stage at the Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers' meeting with Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. Photo / AP 

However, Dr Iati Iati, Pacific security fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said the Pacific countries would be "particularly pleased" with mutual understanding on issues such as infrastructure and agricultural development, and fisheries. 

"China will probably add value to these areas in ways that traditional benefactors have not. 

"In a region that is replete with natural resources, China is bringing innovative strategies that could harness these for the good of these countries." 

He said these developments would likely "buoy" Pacific countries heading into the Pacific Island Forum, scheduled for July and including Australia and New Zealand, in the knowledge they had other long-term options to deal with some of their development and security issues. 

Iati said China would also likely be pleased with the common understanding about having a "shared future", and that the Pacific countries would "understand and support China's core interests and major concerns". 

Iati said New Zealand needed to "critically evaluate" how they got into this position given their long-standing relations. 

"China is not going anywhere, and China-Pacific relations are only getting stronger." 

Dr Anna Powles, a Massey University expert in Pacific security, said it wasn't surprising to see Pacific leaders reject the communique, but the whole process raised questions about the "depth" of New Zealand's relationship. 

"There were strong concerns about the way in which China had tried to have it adopted at the foreign ministers meeting; the lack of consensus-building around the agreement which is the anthesis of how the Pacific negotiates agreements. 

"There were also concerns about aspects of the communique. 

"This is hugely significant because it reminds us of the strengths and importance of collective diplomacy in the Pacific and the limits of Beijing's multilateral diplomacy in the Pacific. 

"If we have learnt anything since the Solomons-China security deal was leaked and the latest initiative to develop a comprehensive region-wide plan in the Pacific it is that relationships matter and we need to be asking whether the depth of our relationships match the rhetoric." 

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta meeting Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama in Suva in March. Photo / Supplied 

On the position paper for the region, Powles said it could be assumed issues including security and free trade were omitted because they were points of contention as well as "the process by which China attempted to secure the deal". 

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said earlier she believed it showed they felt matters such as security and sovereignty should be discussed at a regional level, including at the Pacific Islands Forum. 

Sāmoa's Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Fiamē Naomi Mata'afa told Sāmoan publication Talamua shortly after the meeting they "did not have enough time to look at it". 

Mata'afa said any issue requiring the region's view should come through the Pacific Islands Forum. 

Mahuta said she shared that view, which had also been informed by a "broad range of conversations across Pacific nations with leaders around how we address these types of issues". 

"They've certainly identified through their bilateral discussions with China the opportunity for bespoke opportunities, but at a regional level, that is a matter entirely, I believe, for the Pacific Islands Forum to discuss," Mahuta said. 

Mahuta, has copped flak in recent days over a relative lack of face-to-face engagement in the region as China completes an eight-nation tour and Australia's new foreign minister flew to Fiji within days of her election to office. 

Mahuta said she would be meeting with all of her foreign minister counterparts at the Pacific Islands Forum in July, and was planning a separate meeting with Manele in the Solomon Islands as soon as their schedules allowed. 

"As border settings allow, I'm going to absolutely try and get to many of the places across the Pacific. 

"But I want to be really clear. Our relationship with our Pacific neighbours is in good shape." 

- by Michael Neilson, NZ Herald