The Prime Minister yesterday made her most direct criticisms of China yet.
In comments that are likely to be applauded in Canberra and Washington, she said a proposed China- Solomon Islands security agreement was gravely concerning.
She said New Zealand intended to tell China directly of its concerns.
New Zealand will not be the only country that holds a strong view on this issue, she said.
Jacinda Ardern told her weekly post Cabinet press conference there was no need for the expansion by the Solomons that we were seeing.
“New Zealand has long expressed an opinion that we do not want to see the militarization of the Pacific that we believe we can support one another with defence and security needs as they arise,” she said.
Ardern appeared to be on the same page as the hawkish Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who argues that China will want to establish a base in the Pacific.
“Beijing’s interest in Pacific military bases is to make it harder for the United States to move forces across the sea and closer to the Chinese mainland,” he said on Friday.
“If China establishes a military presence in the Solomons, we could in 15 years see People’s Liberation Army maritime surveillance aircraft using Honiara to keep a permanent surveillance cap over our east coast.
“Beijing could have installed signals intelligence systems able to suck up electronic emissions from Cairns to Melbourne and an over-the-horizon radar system to track ship and aircraft movements.”
The Chinese have said very little about the proposed agreement.
But China sent six police officers to Honiara in late December to help train Solomons Islands police after riots broke out in the capital in November.
The Chinese arrived as a large contingent of Australian defence, and police personnel along with smaller numbers from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji were leaving.
Five New Zealand defence personnel remain deployed there.
The riots had a strong anti-China (and anti-Chinese) flavour to them, with Chinese businesses targeted.
The current Solomons Prime Minister’s 2019 decision to switch recognition from Taiwan to China not only brought some significant Chinese aid to the Solomons but also provoked heated opposition from the country’s most populated island, Malaita, which in part played a role in the November riots.
Since then, the Solomons has been a touchpoint for those concerned about growing Chinese influence in the region.
From comments at her press conference yesterday, it would seem Ardern was one of those warning the Solomons not to get too close.
She revealed that at the end of last year, she had spoken to Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and appears to have warned him about his country’s relationship with China.
“So this is something that I raised with the Prime Minister at the end of last year,” she said.
“We had a conversation right before Christmas around this issue.
“We have also raised it with our counterparts at officials level, and I believe at ambassador level, we’re seeking to raise it directly also with China.”
But it appeared that Sogavare disagreed with Ardern.
“I think there was an acknowledgment of the concerns, but also assurances around relationships and the security arrangements that they will be entering into,” she said.
“But obviously, we’re not satisfied by that.”
Instead, she promoted New Zealand’s role as a friend to the Pacific.
“We were working very hard to support our Pacific neighbours and our Pacific family to respond to whatever security, defence, training or capability arrangements they may have needed support for, and we have done that for years,” she said.
“So the question that has to be asked is what gaps remained that weren’t being fulfilled.
“I can’t see any.
“And so that then raises a question over what the intention is with these arrangements.”
There is little doubt that the Solomons decision will shake up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The Pacific “reset” policy announced during Labour’s first term was a barely disguised attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
But China yesterday was downplaying the significance of the agreement with the Solomons.
The Communist Party newspaper, “the Global Times” said: “The bilateral cooperation in law enforcement and security areas, in fact, is a response to last year’s riots in the Solomon Islands during which Chinese nationals there suffered great losses with their shops smashed, burned and looted and their personal safety in jeopardy.
“Given the presence of Chinese nationals in the Solomon Islands and with the development and expansion of normal ties between the two countries, it’s natural for the two sides to beef up security cooperation.”
The Solomons Government made a similar statement last Friday.
The Solomon Islands values its 2017 Security Agreement with Australia, it is the country’s first Security Agreement,” it said.
“In diversifying the country’s security partnership, including with China, the Government is working to sign off and implement a number of development frameworks with China to further create a secure and safe environment for local and foreign investments, including Civil Aviation Services Agreement with China, expanding trade under Non Reciprocal Trading arrangement with China and sending more students to China for tertiary education in addition to those that left our shores this week.”
That is not to say there is not strong opposition within the Solomons to the agreement with China.
Reaction from the rest of the Pacific has been muted, but it would seem likely that Ardern now wants to involve the Pacific Islands Forum.
“We can, of course, continue to bilaterally raise the concerns that we have,” she said.
“We can also work as a Pacific Island family through the Pacific Island Forum to raise the voice of all countries in the region around what we want to see happening in the Pacific.
“This is our backyard.”
What she didn’t say was that New Zealand claims to have a “truly independent” foreign policy. That claim may be a bit harder to sustain after her comments yesterday.