Foreign Affairs

Defence’s dance around China in the Pacific

Another piece of the Pacific Reset puzzle has snapped into place - but a new defence document shows New Zealand is still wary of explicitly discussing China’s role in the region.

In any discussion about the Pacific, China looms large.

Larger than it should, say some Pacific experts - and perhaps with some justification, given a recent Lowy Institute report that suggested claims of the superpower’s “debt trap diplomacy” in the region were not quite supported by the facts.

But that same report made it clear that the “sheer scale of China’s lending” poses risks for Pacific nations.

It is those risks that in part underpin a new government defence assessment, “Advancing Pacific Partnerships” - although it is not stated as plainly as that.

The document names climate change as one of the most significant issues facing the Pacific, unsurprisingly given Defence Minister Ron Mark’s strong views on the matter and Pacific leaders’ declaration that climate change was “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

But in line with most foreign policy documents, neither China nor any other nations are explicitly cited as a concern.

The Strategic Defence Policy Statement released in mid-2018 was a departure from that approach, with its reference to “an increasingly confident China” drawing an official rebuke from Beijing and an apparent cooling in relations over the following months.

It appears the Government is once bitten, twice shy: the Pacific paper does not make such overt references, instead alluding to “greater competition for influence in the Pacific” from “external actors seeking to enhance their regional presence”.

There is plenty of talk about working with “like-minded partners”, although exactly what equates to like-mindedness is left open to interpretation.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says New Zealand's 'people power' can win out over any prolific spending in the Pacific. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Asked about it at the launch event, Mark at first focused on religious beliefs in the Pacific and their similarity to tikanga Māori, before expanding on China’s fit when talking to media afterwards.

“I like to think they have the same interests at heart as we do, and that is the prosperity and wellbeing and the sovereign rights of Pacific nations, and they adhere to openness and transparency in the same way that we do.”

But Rouben Azizian, the director of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, argued that it was China’s opacity that was of most concern,

“That is in my opinion the problem - the problem is not that we have more external players, we should have external players who are open and transparent about what they are doing.”

Azizian did not believe China had “vicious objectives or plans”, and said the best way to deal with their self-interest in the region was through dialogue rather than outright rejection.

“China 20 years ago was a developing country that was desperately trying to catch up with the rest of the world, today they have done that and as a larger power they are kind of trying to find their place.

“It is not easy so they will obviously make mistakes, but hopefully they will learn from their mistakes - I don't think they want to colonise the region.”

He was supportive of the defence document, saying it was a welcome step towards formalising what had been a somewhat ad-hoc approach to the Pacific Reset.

“I’ve been asked by many foreign experts, ‘Where can we find the details of the Pacific Reset policy, is there a particular document’...and there isn’t one.”

Massey University's Rouben Azizian says New Zealand should not dictate who Pacific nations should work with, but help them develop the skills to make informed decisions. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

New Zealand had been somewhat patronising and complacent about the Pacific in the past, Azizian said, but the Government’s new approach was a sign that was finally changing.

“The best way of dealing with external powers is not to tell Pacific islands these countries are good or bad, but it’s making these [Pacific] countries stronger, so they can develop their own foreign policy from a position of strength and they choose then who they want to partner with, but it’s an informed decision and it’s based only truly independent foreign policy.”

It is a message the Government appears to be taking on board, with a major component of “Advancing Pacific Partnerships” the announcement of a new leadership programme, developed by MFAT and the NZDF and rolling out across Pacific nations over the next four years.

New Zealand has organised similar initiatives in the past, but Mark told media a new attitude would make a notable difference.

"It's fair to say we dropped the ball and we lost sight of what's really important: people.

"People-to-people relationships, and a genuine desire, genuine affection, genuine love for those people we engage with."

But could that match up to China’s growing loans and aid on offer to Pacific nations? 

“If you’re asking me if I put money ahead of people, the answer is no.”

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