New Zealand is preparing to step up its diplomatic engagement with Pacific countries in response to China’s proposal for a regional security pact.
But only to a limited extent.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta will visit the Solomon Islands shortly, where China Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday signed a security agreement with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.
Beyond her annual trip to the Pacific Islands Forum, she has no other immediate plans to visit any Pacific countries.
Otherwise, it seems the Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are relying on international conferences such as the Forum and next month’s Commonwealth heads of Government meeting to engage with Pacific leaders.
Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, just three days in the job, flew to Suva yesterday for meetings with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Pacific Forum Secretary Henry Puna — obviously attempting to get in ahead of Wang who is holding a meeting with Pacific Foreign Ministers there next week.
Mahuta told TodayFM’s Tova O’Brien yesterday that she had spoken to the Solomon islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele by phone twice in the last six months and again this week.
“MFAT and the senior officials, which is an extension of my office, have also engaged with Solomons over this period of time,” said Mahuta.
“There should be no confusion about the level of engagement and our level of commitment to the Solomons, and they appreciate the way in which we do engage with them.”
Wang moves on to Kiribati today as part of his nine-nation ten-day tour of the Pacific.
A draft communique to be reached after Wang holds a summit with Pacific leaders in Suva next week is now circulating. It promotes a series of areas where China and the Pacific countries will co-operate.
National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, yesterday said that the fact that some Pacific Island countries will consider this agreement raises questions over how the New Zealand-Pacific relationship appeared to have broken down in recent years.
That China feels emboldened to propose such an extensive agreement is a sign that competition in our region is escalating, and it’s not clear New Zealand is part of the dialogue on meeting the needs of Pacific Island countries.
“The Minister needs to urgently explain what she and this Government will do to ensure New Zealand’s long commitment to the Pacific is not swept aside under her watch,” said Brownlee.
The most controversial clause in the draft communique commits China and its partner Pacific states to “expand law enforcement cooperation, jointly combat transnational crime, and establish a dialogue mechanism on law enforcement capacity and police cooperation.
“China will hold intermediate and high-level police training for Pacific Island Countries through bilateral and multilateral means.”
Other topics covered in the Communique include cyber network governance and security; trade; people to people exchanges, including Chinese language teaching and sports and the arts; educational opportunities and climate change.
At the same time, the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, in an open letter on Tuesday to “friends” and media has been promoting President Xi Jinping’s Global Strategic Initiative.
This appeared to be a response to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework unveiled on Sunday in Tokyo by US President Joe Biden.
“The Global Strategic Initiative (GSI) is of direct relevance to peace and stability of the Asia Pacific region, the neighbourhood of both China and New Zealand,” he said.
“Rather than learning the painful lessons of conflict and suffering in Europe, some powers are conceiving a “new Cold War” in the Asia Pacific region, attempting to piece together an Asia-Pacific or even a global NATO.
“Such utterly irresponsible and dangerous impulse, if left unchecked, will push the Asia Pacific over the edge of an abyss.
“All, particularly regional countries like China and New Zealand will lose in this scenario.”
Wang says China and New Zealand would benefit from working together “along the lines of the GSI.”
But his trip has so far not been without its problems.
In the Solomons, local journalists boycotted his media conference because of limitations on questioning.
However, a communique issued after his meeting y3sterday with Solomons President John Patteson Oti said that for more than two years, China-Solomon Islands relations had achieved all-round development, with a deepening political mutual trust.
The Communique appeared to acknowledge the Solomons’ relations with Australia and New Zealand.
“China respects Solomon Islands’ development of friendly relations with other countries in the world, and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries makes the Solomon Islands have one more good friend and one more sincere and reliable partner,” it said.
“China looks forward to seeing bilateral relations give play to our late starter’s advantage and become a pacesetter of mutually beneficial cooperation and a model of mutual trust between China and island countries.”
Wang travels to Kiribati today for a four-hour visit which has raised questions about China’s strategic intentions in the region.
Radio NZ Pacific yesterday quoted Kiribati journalist and former Government communications adviser Rimon Rimon, who said a Chinese deal with Kiribati had more significance for China as Beijing had already demonstrated its willingness to develop Kiribati’s northern-most island, Canton Island, which has strategic military potential.
“And I think China is pursuing that. I think our government is quite reluctant on something military-wise, based on the narrative that the government has been saying throughout the years,” he said.
“But I have no doubt this is; this is the number one thing on China’s agenda.”
Kiribati’s 119,000 people live on 33 atolls and one island, which straddle the equator and the Pacific from 4000 km north of New Zealand to 2000 km south of Hawaii.
It is of obvious strategic importance.
The draft communique for the Suva meeting says The countries at the meeting acknowledged that China and Pacific Island Countries, as developing countries in the Asian-Pacific region, share broad common interests in safeguarding regional peace and stability.
“It is the shared aspiration and serves the long-term benefits of all parties to strengthen all-round exchange and cooperation, and affirmed they will deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development, to build a closer China-Pacific Island Countries community with a shared future,” it said.
The Communique also said the countries committed to upholding multilateralism and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, “to safeguarding the UN-centered international system and the international order based on international law, and to establishing a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, equity, justice and win-win cooperation.”
Neither New Zealand nor Australia has sought to develop agreements with Pacific Island countries along these lines.
The Executive director of the Australian Strategic Studies Institute (ASPI), Justin Bassi and an Institute analyst, Blake Johnson, last night published a commentary on Wang’s trip.
“China’s intent or motivation is key—why is China doing this and why now? As ASPI’s Executive Director, Justin Bassi, recently wrote, China’s ‘end game is to push out US and allied interests, achieve regional hegemony, create vassal states, control access to supply chains and improve its ability to take Taiwan with minimal costs’.”
ASPI is one of Australia’s more hawkish think tanks and has close ties to the Defence Department.
The view in Wellington is more moderate, both because of New Zealand’s own close relationship with China and also because of a more nuanced understanding of the region.
That includes a belief that the deep historical and ethnic ties that exist between New Zealand (as part of Polynesia itself) and the region still matter. Those ties extend to other western countries.
For example, Tonga is about to send soldiers to participate in the US Rimpac exercises. China has not yet achieved regional hegemony.
Instead, the Wang trip is being seen as a wake-up call; that New Zealand cannot take the pacific for granted.