At a ceremony in Fiji on Tuesday, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nana Mahuta presented a 14-foot carving, which she called a symbol of “Pacific regionalism”.
It was a small but symbolic moment on the first day of the historic trip – Mahuta’s first official visit to the Pacific, which included the signing of an agreement promising “common commitment and a vision of regional solidarity” with Fiji.
But in Wellington, reports of unity have come under scrutiny amid rainfall in the Solomon Islands proposed security agreement with China, which has raised concerns that Chinese warships may be stationed in the Pacific.
On Monday, former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters accused the government of negligence.
“If we want to be honest with ourselves, we need to look back and say, have we made an effort in recent decades? The right answer is no, we didn’t do as much as we should have done, “Peters said told RNZ.
While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has rejected criticism, Defense Minister Penny Henare stressed the need to send “the right signals” Pacific countries in response to this news. Shortly afterwards, Mahuta’s office announced the continuation of New Zealand’s military and police presence in the Solomon Islands.
But as the situation progresses, New Zealand experts warn that New Zealand’s influence in the region could be damaged by an overreaction to any perceived Chinese threat.
“There is danger because it creates a situation of military escalation of tension,” said Stephen Ratuwa, a distinguished professor and director of the Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury.
“There are much more complex political narratives than what we see on the surface … It’s about smart politics, because sometimes when you try to stop another state from entering the region, you’re actually exacerbating the problem.”
New Zealand’s influence in the Pacific has declined in recent years as China grows, says Dr. Anna Pauls, a senior lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at Messi University.
Pauls attributes the shift to “periods of declining Canberra and Wellington involvement” and “assumptions that Australia and New Zealand did not need to make significant efforts in the region to maintain their apparent superiority”, resulting in Pacific states “diversifying their foreign relations”. .
“During this period, other actors began to increase their activity in the Pacific. China has been one of those growing regional nations. ”
China has provided about $ 3 billion in aid to the Pacific between 2006 and 2020, according to the Lowe Institute, and now the largest export market for the Pacific. Last October, the first meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China and the Pacific Islands took place, at which regular meetings are planned.
Professor Ratuwa says the dynamics in the Pacific have “dramatically” changed in recent years with the increase in China’s presence, but New Zealand’s influence remains strong.
“The strategy has changed … It may be less noticeable, but that doesn’t mean it has lost its influence,” he said.
The Pacific has long been a major recipient of New Zealand aid. However, New Zealand’s total aid fell during the previous government from 0.3% to 0.25% of GDP. About 60% of New Zealand’s foreign aid goes to the Pacific.
In 2018, New Zealand launched the Pacific Reboot Program, which increased funding for development in the region. Now this approach has been replaced by “Pacific Sustainability”, a doctrine that, according to Mahuta, reflects the “Pacific view of our collective interests in the region”.
“The reboot of the Pacific was anti-Chinese. It was a way to re-engage with the Pacific to test Chinese aid and diplomacy in the Pacific. But Pacific resilience is a little different. This applies to the relationship between people and the renewed interaction with the culture of Aatearoa and the Pacific.
The key to influencing “Independence”.
The way forward is not to compete with China, Ratuwa says, but to allow New Zealand to maintain an independent approach to its relations in the Pacific.
“New Zealand has been very independent in its foreign policy, and those who have hawk lenses have seen it as a sign of weakness. In fact, it is probably a sign of strength. This allows New Zealand to interact much more freely with the rest of the world without being part of a particular alliance. ”
“It’s not about being strong or weak, it’s about being effective in how you interact with the rest of the world.”
On the contrary, Ratuwa says Australia is prone to a “very militaristic approach”, for example, through Alliance Aukuswhich will provide Australia with nuclear submarines.
Dr Pauls says New Zealand’s soft power in the Pacific is its investment in a relationship “partly driven by New Zealand’s growing Pacific identity”, but more consistent engagement is needed to ensure that New Zealand’s supposed values are matched by material Zealand values. ».
Opposition National Party spokeswoman Jerry Brownlee said New Zealand needed to increase financial support for the Pacific “over time” and increase cooperation with other donors to ensure that “the overall influence of Western democracy is not lost.”
Returning to Haniar, where the recent controversy began, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Monace Sogavar it became clear that its foreign policy is its own business.
Speaking to parliament, he said that while New Zealand would remain a close partner, “to meet our security needs, it is clear that we need to diversify the country’s relations with other partners. What’s wrong with that? ”