The Government hopes that its new Pacific TV service will help to counter growing super power rivalry in the region.
The Ambassador to the Pacific for Economic Development, Shane Jones, told POLITIK last night at a briefing on the service in Auckland that the Pacific was becoming “very crowded”.
The project which has been headed by former Sky lobbyist, Tony O’Brien, eventually aims to provide eight hours per day of New Zealand originated TV for rebroadcast by Pacific island TV stations.
The programming will be provided free and Mr O’Brien said the initiative will also provide training for Pacific broadcasters as well as intern opportunities for Pacific broadcasting staff with TVNZ.
But the service is the first big pan-Pacific “soft power” initiative from New Zealand and reflects a growing concern in Wellington that China and the US are bringing their international rivalry to the region.
In part that is prompted by interest in Pacific fisheries, particularly on the part of China.
New Zealand based its campaign for its Security Council seat on its advocacy on behalf of small island states and this is a case of the country putting its money – or at least its TV programmes — where its mouth is.
“The purpose of the initiative is to ensure that New Zealand’s footprint at both a cultural and societal level is projected into the Pacific,” said Mr Jones.
He said we can’t match the size of other outside countries in the Pacific “but our interests and values reflected through a suitable package of broadcast programmes can ensure that our voice is heard and our footprint does not disappear.”
He said he had encountered criticism over the past 15months since he took up his post after resigning as a Labour MP that New Zealand seemed to have gone off the boil in the Pacific and that Australia also had reduced its broadcasting impact in the region.
“So we are filling that gap.”
Mr Jones said there was no doubt the Pacific was becoming a crowded space.
“Whether or not it’s a deliberate strategy of China to increase its presence or just a flowover from their growing geo-political strength, the reality is that New Zealand still wants to have its voice heard and to project a strong and reassuring image.”
Mr Jones said that New Zealand was co-operating with China in the Pacific with the two countries currently working on a water project in the Cook Islands.
But clearly the growing presence of China and the possibility of super power rivalry between China and the US has prompted New Zealand’s initiative in what it regards as its own backyard.
Mr Jones said the next “soft power” initiative would be a sporting diplomacy initiative which would see New Zealand sports people go to Pacific islands to help train locals. preparing young people
The TV initiative will include rugby, netball, cricket and soccer programming.
“I am tempted to say it would be good to have the Maori All Blacks and the All Blacks playing around the Pacific on a regular basis because that is what people want to see,” he said.
“But sporting diplomacy is assisting with the management of sports in the Pacific – helping to run programmes that lead to healthier lifestyles.
“They are also helping prepare young people – Fijians for example – who go to play in France when too many of them have ended up on drugs and things.”
Mr Jones said it was time the Rugby Union, which drew so much from the Pacific, gave something back to the Pacific.
“Perhaps by encouraging investors to back a joint Pacific team in the Super rugby competition based in South Auckland or Fiji – but somewhere which makes it possible for world famous athletes to be participating in the Pacific.”
Foreign Minister Murray McCully has been behind the broadcasting initiative and has also been a strong advocate for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pay more attention to the Pacific.
At last night’s briefing, the heads of mission from all of New Zealand’s posts in the Pacific were present underlining the importance of the project to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and to the country’s overall foreign policy.