Almost exactly 36 years after the United States effectively kicked New Zealand out of ANZUS, New Zealand has signed up to a new alliance with the US.
“The Partners in the Blue Pacific” alliance involving the US, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom was unveiled in Washington a week ago. Still, no statement revealing New Zealand’s role has been issued in Wellington.
There were oblique references to it when Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta appeared before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee on Thursday.
But, ironically, given that the alliance’s purpose is to counter China in the region, more information was available from Chinese media than here.
The White House did issue a statement outlining that the five countries had agreed to form the alliance.
“As our countries—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—continue to support prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific, we too must harness our collective strength through closer cooperation,” it said.
The statement stressed that “at every stage, we will be led and guided by the Pacific Islands.”
“In meetings in Washington, including at Blair House, our governments and Pacific Heads of Mission discussed diverse areas in which to deepen cooperation, including the climate crisis, connectivity and transportation, maritime security and protection, health, prosperity, and education,” it said.
“We commit to continuing to engage with Pacific governments as well as with Pacific-led regional institutions, particularly the Pacific Islands Forum; we will align our work with outcomes from the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in Suva, Fiji.”
But international media have been quick to see the Alliance as being designed to counter China.
Reuters reported that the Biden administration had vowed to commit more resources to the Indo-Pacific as China sought to boost economic, military and police links with Pacific island nations hungry for foreign investment.
The South China Morning Post said it was the latest initiative by the United States and its allies to counter China’s influence in the Pacific region.
The state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN), on the other hand, dismissed the proposal as “really just an unofficial expansion of last September’s AUKUS anti-China alliance with Australia, the UK, and the US.”
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, China Daily, said: “Although the five countries claim the initiative aims to “deliver results for the Pacific”, “boost Pacific regionalism”, and “expand opportunities for cooperation between the Pacific and the world”, the movie is undoubtedly a customised endeavour to counter China’s influence in the region.”
Surprisingly the Prime Minister did not mention the Partnership at all in her speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on Friday night.
That Forum is regarded as a major platform for leaders to spell out their foreign policies.
Ardern certainly mentioned the Pacific; 15 times in total.
“New Zealand is a Pacific nation, with a strong connection to our wider Indo-Pacific region,” she said.
And then the kind of audience that would assemble at the Institute’s Chatham House headquarters would easily be able to read between the lines of the next part of her speech and see “China”.
‘In recent times, there has been growing interest in the Pacific,” SHE SAID.
“That interest is understandable.
“While nations like New Zealand, I would like to think, have had a fairly predictable approach to foreign policy, the foreign policy position of some of the significant members of our region has changed”
The order that has brought the region prosperity over the past eighty years is contested.
“The rule of law is challenged in the South China Sea where we are seeing the construction of artificial islands, militarisation and actions that pose risks to the freedom of navigation and overflight and which are at odds with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “
Ardern was speaking, having been one of four Indo-Pacific leaders invited to the NATO summit.
NATO is a nuclear-armed military alliance headed by the United States.
She was asked whether a NATO-like alliance would be a solution to the challenges faced in the Pacific.
“So obviously, NATO is determining its own strategic interests with its members,” she said.
“I don’t think that for a moment there is the suggestion that they will move away from essentially what is held in their title.
“And I don’t get any sense that NATO is seeking to expand the membership and into the wider region.
“To me, what the invitation from those within the Asia Pacific represented is what we’ve increasingly known to be true; the war in Europe affects those in the Indo-Pacific and border regions.
“Any potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific would have an impact on Europe.
“We are increasingly interconnected and the responses that we take to conflict actually need to be global in order for them to be effectual.”
Ardern was explicit in her argument that the region did not need militarisation.
“Our region does not need militarisation to be safe.
“One of the arguments that we’ve made all the way through is that we want peace and stability in our region.
“And some would argue that greater militarisation takes us further from that goal.”
Ardern was careful to emphasise that New Zealand would be guided by the Pacific Islands Forum in its dealings with the region, a point repeated in the “Blue Pacific” alliance document.
This deference to the Forum by the Partnership was welcomed by the Forum Secretary-General, Henry Puna.
“The adage – ‘nothing about us, without us’ is our litmus test for the partnerships we want,” he said last Tuesday.
While New Zealand officials have been keen to play down the possible security aspects of the Blue Pacific Partnership, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta last week suggested security could be part of the agreement.
In what is now clear was a reference to the Partnership, she told a Select Committee last Thursday that it was not unusual to have intelligence arrangements.
“What may well be the case, and we won’t know until the Pacific Islands Forum conversation whether there is a stronger aspiration reflected from the Pacific around how those arrangements might better serve the Pacific assessment of its regional interests,” she said.
The Blue Pacific alliance was developed in Washington with the Embassies of Australia and New Zealand and Pacific countries heavily involved.
The National Security Co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, well known in New Zealand, seems to have led the process.
He told the Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington on the eve of the unveiling of the alliance that the United States needed to step up its diplomatic and aid efforts in the region.
He said that just as Jakarta had become a key post for United States engagement with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) so he expected Suva would fill the same role with the pacific islands Forum and the region generally.
“What we have seen of late is a substantial step-up of political and diplomatic engagement, particularly from Australia and New Zealand in recent weeks and months,” he said.
“I want to commend that.
“We’ve also seen it from our Japanese colleagues and friends.
“ I think what we have seen is that there are a number of countries that have longstanding interests in the Pacific, and there are also countries that want to do more with respect to the Pacific.
“I think what we would like to do in an unofficial and appropriate way is engage with those countries, work with them, create a partnership, so to speak, in which we, together, can identify the key areas that require more resources, that require coordination and engagement.”
Diplomats from Samoa and Fiji taking part in the Centre’s panel discussion were emphatic that climate change ranked above all other issues as the principal one facing the Pacific.
Ambassador Satyendra Prasad suggested that it ranked above the geopolitical contest between the US and China.
“On the geopolitical side, I think our response is clear and simple. In the geopolitical contest between US and China, climate change is winning,” he said.
“And the longer this draws out needlessly; climate change will continue to win.”
The Pacific has not seen so much attention from the United States since the Second World War, and like then, New Zealand finds itself at the heart of a geopolitical contest in its own neighbourhood.
Why the Government is giving the new Partnership such a low profile is, therefore, odd.