A meeting has been called in Honiara at the beginning of April to try and resolve what is an emerging security crisis in the South Pacific.
Australia, New Zealand, and France and the United States will attend the meeting in Honiara of a little-known defence alliance called the “Quadrilateral Defence Operational Working Group” – or the Quad partners for short.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said New Zealand would be represented by “Government agencies”.
POLITIK understands that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rather than (as would be expected) Defence is managing the situation.
The meeting has been called because of a reported threat to the United States to withdraw its maritime patrols from the region.
The US Coast Guard, navy and air force patrols maintain surveillance across the West, Central and South Pacific Ocean keeping a watch out for illegal fishing, smugglers and other illegal maritime activity.
For the tiny island states that make up the South Pacific Forum and its Forum Fisheries Agency, the patrols are a main defence against illegal fishing.
An Australian report for the Forum Fisheries Agency last year estimated that approximately 306,440 tonnes of tuna worth approximately $616.11 million was illegally harvested or transhipped each year in the region.
POLITIK understands that the remaining partners in the “Quad” agreement have indicated they would expect New Zealand to do more if the US left.
The US is concerned because the Forums Fisheries Agency is refusing to provide it with some data that enables it to more precisely target its patrols to pick up illegal fishing or smuggling.
The Pacific nations refusing to supply the data say they cannot trust the way the US uses it.
This comes on top of a long running dispute between the US Tunaboat Association and the Fisheries; Agency over how many days US should fish and how much they should pay for the right to fish.
But one reliable diplomatic source has suggested to POLITIK that China or Chinese interests lie behind the refusal to supply the data through the increasing ability of China to influence politicians in the region.
The upshot for China is that an absence of American patrols gives their own fishing vessels an opportunity to fish with fewer restrictions.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a major issue in the Pacific which deprives the island states of considerable revenue.
An example is the Damanzaihao, said to be the world’s largest fishing vessel, has been called out by Greenpeace for its activities in the South Pacific.
It has flown various flags, including those of Peru, Russia and Mongolia, and has changed its name at least once, all without reporting any catch at all to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization.
That agency declared the vessel an “illegal, unreported, unregulated” ship early last year.
It is a graphic demonstration of how much influence China is now able to deploy across the region – particularly in the countries which recognise it
Data compiled by Sydney’s Lowy Institute shows that between 2006 and 2014, China moved ahead of New Zealand to become the region’s third largest aid donor after Australia and the US.
The whole dispute could not come at a worse time for New Zealand with a visit expected soon from the Chinese Premier Li and Foreign Minister Murray McCully expected to make a trip to Washington for a March 22, meeting of the 68-member Global Coalition working to defeat ISIS.
That meeting will be chaired by the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
McCully will then return to New Zealand to almost immediately join the meetings with Premier Li.