Power shifts: New Zealand reconsiders Pacific role as China’s influence grows

In a ceremony in Fiji on Tuesday, New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister, Nanaia Mahuta, unveiled a 14-foot carving, which she called a symbol of “Pacific regionalism”.

It was a small but symbolic moment during the first day of a historic trip – Mahuta’s first official visit to the Pacific, which has included the signing of an agreement promising a “shared commitment and vision for regional solidarity” with Fiji.

But back in Wellington, the messages of unity faced scrutiny, amid the fallout over Solomon Islands’ proposed security deal with China, which has prompted concern that Chinese military ships could be stationed in the Pacific.

월요일에, former deputy prime minister Winston Peters accused the government of neglect.

“If we wish to be honest with ourselves, we have to look back and say in the recent decades have we put the effort in? The proper answer is no, we haven’t done as much as we should have done,” Peters told RNZ.

While prime minister Jacinda Ardern dismissed the criticism, defence minister Peeni Henare stressed the need to send “the right signals” to Pacific nations in response to the news. Shortly after, Mahuta’s office announced a continuation of New Zealand’s military and police presence in the Solomons.

But as the situation unfolds, New Zealand experts are warning that New Zealand’s influence in the region may be harmed by overreaction to any perceived Chinese threat.

“There’s a danger because it creates a situation of military escalation of tension,” says distinguished professor Steven Ratuva, director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at Canterbury University.

“There’s much more complex political narratives at play than what we’re seeing on the surface … It’s a matter of playing smart politics, because sometimes when you try to stop another power from engaging in the region, you actually escalate the problem.”

New Zealand’s influence in the Pacific has declined in recent years as China’s has risen, says Dr Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.

Powles attributes this shift to “periods of decreased engagement by Canberra and Wellington” and “assumptions that Australia and New Zealand didn’t need to put considerable effort into the region to maintain their perceived primacy”, which saw Pacific states “diversifying their foreign policy relationships”.

“During this period other actors began to increase their engagement in the Pacific. China was one of those rising regional powers.”

China provided around $3bn in aid to Pacific countries between 2006 과 2020 according to the Lowy Institute, and is now the largest export market for the Pacific. In October last year, an inaugural China-Pacific Islands foreign ministers meeting was held, with plans for regular meetings.

Prof Ratuva says the dynamic in the Pacific has changed “dramatically” in recent years with China’s increasing presence, but New Zealand’s influence remains strong.

“The strategy has changed … It’s probably less visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost its influence,”그는 말한다.

The Pacific has long been the primary recipient of New Zealand aid. 하나, New Zealand’s total aid declined during the previous government from 0.3% ...에 0.25% of GDP. 약 60% of New Zealand’s foreign aid goes to the Pacific.

에 2018, New Zealand launched its “Pacific Reset” which increased development funding in the region. That approach has now been replaced with “Pacific Resilience”, a doctrine which Mahuta says reflects a “Pacific-centric view of our collective interests in the region”.

“The Pacific Reset had an anti Chinese orientation. It was a way of re-engaging with the Pacific to check Chinese aid and diplomacy in the Pacific. But the Pacific Resilience is a bit different. It is to do with people to people relationships and reengaging with the culture of Aotearoa and the Pacific.”

The way forward is not to compete with China, Ratuva says, but for New Zealand to maintain an independent approach to its dealings in the Pacific.

“New Zealand has been very independent in its foreign policy and that has been seen by those with hawkish lenses as a sign of weakness. 사실로, it’s probably a sign of strength. It allows New Zealand to engage much more freely with the rest of the world without being cast as being part of a particular alliance.”

“It’s not a matter of being strong or weak, it’s a matter of being effective in the way that you engage with the rest of the world.”

By contrast, Ratuva says Australia has tended toward “a very militaristic approach”, such as through the Aukus alliance, which will provide Australia with nuclear-propelled submarines.

Dr Powles says New Zealand’s “soft power in the Pacific is its investment in relationships, in part informed by New Zealand’s growing Pacific identity”, but more consistent engagement is needed to ensure New Zealand’s “purported values are coupled with material outcomes”.

Opposition National party foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, says New Zealand needs to increase financial support to the Pacific “over time”, and increase collaboration with other donors to ensure the “general influence of western democracy is not lost”.

Back in Honiara, where the recent controversy began, Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare has made clear that its foreign policy is its own business.

Speaking to parliament, he said that, while New Zealand would remain a close partner, “to achieve our security needs, it is clear we need to diversify the country’s relationship with other partners. What is wrong with that?”

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