Foreign Affairs

Ardern leads ‘Pacific Reset’ tour

A "Pacific reset" for New Zealand's foreign policy is on the way, with Jacinda Ardern leading a delegation around the Pacific this week to hear about the big issues facing the countries. Sam Sachdeva writes about the Government's motivations for wanting to up its game.

In New Zealand's foreign affairs, every government is told, there are two non-negotiables: Australia, and the Pacific.

MFAT's briefing last year to incoming Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters didn't mince words in spelling out the "non-discretionary" nature of our leadership role in the region.

"Geography, constitutional ties, population mix and security interests commit New Zealand to the security and prosperity of the South Pacific."

It is a message Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her new government appear to have taken on board, with the South Pacific front and centre in recent weeks.

Ardern's first foreign policy speech last week focused more on the Pacific than any other part of the world, as she spoke of New Zealand's long and well-established ties, as well as its duty to act on the threat of climate change in the region.

"We can do better, and we will."

It was followed up by Peters' pledge for a "Pacific reset" in a major speech of his own in Sydney.

He outlined the Government's view of a shared Pacific destiny, speaking of increased aid and "back to basics diplomacy".

Under National, the focus on Pacific aid shifted from social initiatives to economic development...it would be no surprise to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction under Ardern and Peters.

That diplomacy starts this week, with Ardern, Peters and a bevy of ministers and MPs heading around Samoa, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands for the annual Pacific mission.

This push for greater engagement appears to come from a genuine passion for the Pacific from the Government, and what it sees as an opportunity to improve on its predecessor's performance.

It was a move that created an outcry and accusations of white elephants from some aid organisations, and it would be no surprise to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction under Ardern and Peters.

Climate change is an obvious area for Ardern and her government to build a rapport with the Pacific. She has described it as "the nuclear-free issue of our generation", and as with nuclear testing, it is the Pacific that could be in the firing line if nothing is done.

Of course, there will be a heavy focus on recovery and resilience during the Prime Minister's trip, as Tonga in particular recovers from serious damage to its housing following Tropical Cyclone Gita.

As Peters said, "at the Pacific's very worst moments it's the neighbours - Australia and New Zealand - who are always there to help".

Changes 'buffeting' the South Pacific

But New Zealand's assistance is not entirely with self-interest, and is in part about heading off other actors increasing their presence in our backyard.

In particular, China's use of aid and concessional loans to gain favour in the region has rung alarm bells in the United States and on both sides of the Tasman, given the risk of increased instability and growing debt levels.

"Changes in the global order are also buffeting the South Pacific…growing interest from major players from outside the region brings a wider donor base, but also the potential for strategic competition and exposure to a broader set of risks," MFAT's briefing to Peters said.

In his speech, Peters offered a veiled warning of "need and temptation" seducing some Pacific countries. He went further in a question and answer session that followed, highlighting problems in a New Zealand trilateral aid project with China and the Cook Islands, and taking a swipe at the Asian superpower's Belt and Road Initiative.

There is a risk that talking tough on Chinese influence, and insisting Pacific nations should turn their nose up at foreign aid, will come off as condescending.

Ardern will be acutely aware of the need to avoid patronising their Pacific counterparts, with Peters' speech noting New Zealand "must be respectful of Pacific Island countries' clear wish to manage their own international relations".

When Australia's International Development Minister Conchetta Fierravanti-Wells accused China of building "useless buildings" and "roads to nowhere" in the Pacific, the backlash was swift.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi told The Australian the comments were harmful and insulting to Pacific leaders. Tonga and the Cook Islands also objected, forcing Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to row back on her colleague's statements.

Ardern will be acutely aware of the need to avoid patronising their Pacific counterparts, with Peters' speech noting New Zealand "must be respectful of Pacific Island countries' clear wish to manage their own international relations".

New Zealand is not immune to allegations of taking Pacific countries for a ride, either.

Chatham House analyst Cleo Paskal has said New Zealand risks being seen as "a strategic nincompoop at best" by binding Pacific countries to unfavourable terms in the PACER Plus free trade agreement which had led to a number pulling out.

"If we're talking about moral leadership, you really need to take a look at the reality what's going on in the trade negotiations with Pacific Island partners," she said.

Of course, it's a trade deal Ardern has inherited, along with a suite of other challenges for the Pacific: rising obesity rates, the need to improve connectivity, illegal fishing depleting maritime stocks.

Peters spoke about "a dizzying array of social and environmental problems", and his government may find hitting reset on the Pacific is not as simple as it sounds.

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS