Pacific trip provides shape of challenges to come

Jacinda Ardern has wrapped up her week-long trip to the Pacific, saying the visit has set the Government up well to move ahead with its Pacific reset. Sam Sachdeva travelled with the Prime Minister, and looks at the trip's successes and the challenges that will come next.

A trip to the Pacific must be a political propagandist's dream.

The colourful clothing, beautiful backdrops and warmth of the locals meant Jacinda Ardern's five-day visit was almost guaranteed to be a success before she landed.

That is not to do her a disservice: Ardern made the most of her stay, greeting as many locals as she could, speaking in the native language where possible and offering both aid and assurances about the region's importance to New Zealand.

(As a side note, those carping about a waste of taxpayer money should note both John Key and Bill English made regular trips to the Pacific and partook in their fair share of photo opportunities.)

Perhaps wary of being seen as a white saviour a la Daenerys Targaryen, she eschewed the traditional offer to be carried into Atupare Marae on a platform by Cook Islanders - "It's hot, and I'm heavy - it seemed like a good call from my perspective," she said.

Peters: 'The most successful Pacific trip'

With the change of government has come a change in focus on the Pacific.

Ardern's deputy and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says the region is his top priority, and laid out plans for more political engagement, greater funding and a closer relationship during a "Pacific reset" speech.

Speaking to media on the final day of her visit, Ardern expressed contentment with what she and her ministers had achieved.

"I'd rate this mission highly, off the back of the fact that so many of the leaders have remarked on the repositioning that this government has focused on in the Pacific that was set out by the Minister of Foreign Affairs which says, 'Look, actually we do a lot of work across the globe but actually our relationships here in the Pacific are key, they're increasingly important, we need to move to a partnership', and that has been incredibly well received wherever we've gone."

"The Prime Minister's being extremely modest about this trip because she's leading it, but I've been on a lot of Pacific trips, this has been the most successful by a long long way."

Peters was even more effusive: "The Prime Minister's being extremely modest about this trip because she's leading it, but I've been on a lot of Pacific trips, this has been the most successful by a long long way."

Talk of a partnership of equals has been well received, with good reason: as Ardern pointed out, many of the Pacific nations are longstanding democracies with sophisticated leaders, some approaching developed nation status.

The question that seems unanswered is what exactly equality will look like when it comes to the Pacific.

Ardern cited the Government's decision to relax superannuation eligibility rules for realm countries as an example of listening to the needs of the Pacific and acting quickly.

But that was an easy win, relatively speaking; the harder question is how to approach longstanding and more complex issues like climate change, non-communicable diseases and corruption concerns.

'A tad bit condescending'

Writing for the Samoa Planet, Lani Wendt Young said Ardern's remarks about the Pacific "joining" New Zealand in this generation's nuclear-free moment were "a tad bit condescending, considering how long Pacific Island nations and advocacy groups have been championing this issue on the world stage and in the region".

"Framing is important. The words we use are important. Yes Samoa and NZ are great friends, but sometimes our former colonisers don't even realise the underlying messages they are conveying, quite by accident."

Reports on New Zealand's aid to Pacific countries have mooted the idea of providing more general budget support, allowing nations to make their own decisions on funding (with oversight) rather than allocating cash to specific projects.

That would be one way of providing the countries with more independence, but it seems unlikely to be acted on in the near future.

Independence push?

Then there is the issue of realm countries like the Cook Islands and Niue, and their complex relationship with New Zealand.

Both have agitated for United Nations membership in recent years, a proposition that would put their New Zealand citizenship at risk without a workaround.

UN status was off the agenda during Ardern's visit, perhaps due to diplomatic niceties, but the issue of their sovereignty will remain an enduring issue.

To some in the Pacific, a push for greater independence does not mean independence from New Zealand funding.

As Ardern noted both in the Pacific and at Waitangi, it is easy for a new government to make promises - the challenge comes the following years, when they can be held to account for them.

Niue Premier Toke Talagi said money to help his country should not be seen as aid, but investment.

Opening a new school building at Tereora College in Rarotonga, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna noted it had been paid for by the previous government - but there was plenty of room for more facilities.

As Ardern noted both in the Pacific and at Waitangi, it is easy for a new government to make promises. The challenge comes the following years, when they can be held to account for them.

A windfall for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade seems almost certain in May's Budget: how and where that is spent in the Pacific could be crucial to the success of any reset.

Then there is the spectre of That Which Shall Not Be Named, China's increased spending and influence in the region.

The Asian superpower's interest in the Pacific, and the possible flow-on effects for regional stability, is at least in part a factor in New Zealand's increased emphasis - not that Ardern or Peters are willing to call out China by name.

With Tonga's King Tupou V in China to sign a strategic partnership, the Government's attempt to promote New Zealand values will face increased pressure.

The warmth of the Pacific welcome will stay with Ardern for some time, but genuine progress may prove a higher hurdle.

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