Foreign Affairs

Peters warns those looking to advance self-interest in Pacific

Winston Peters welcomes more countries paying attention to the Pacific off the back of his Pacific Reset. But he says you don’t get the status of ‘partner’ by advancing your own 'egregious self-interest'. Laura Walters reports.

As the international landscape changes, the Pacific is becoming a hotly-contested space, but Foreign Minister Winston Peters says not all interested parties are created equal.

During a speech to the Council for International Development conference in Wellington on Monday, Peters said global interests in the Pacific were rising, with increased engagement and investment from both new, and long-term participants.

The jostling for strategic influence and power in the region is not a new theme for Peters’ foreign policy speeches. He often speaks about the challenges facing the region, as he did in an almost-identical speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs on Friday.

But this speech came with a warning to those looking to advance their own “egregious self-interest”.

When his speech for Monday’s conference was drafted, the line read: "long-term and new partners".

“But if we’re to have partnership, we are to have partnership with people who understand our values; who want to put the Pacific people first, not last; who don’t have an egregious self-interest, or advantage they seek from this relationship; but have as the core the need for each island state to be as strong, as independent, as healthy, as free as it possibly can be. That’s our idea of what partnership can be,” he said.

“If they don’t get that, then for my part, I’m going to be using the word ‘participants’, when I see the wrong player doing the wrong thing.”

At the launch of the Government’s Pacific Reset, more than 18 months ago, Peters spoke about the region becoming “an increasingly-contested strategic space”.

While Peters did not name names at the time, there have since been plenty of references to China’s rise in the region, and the “great power ambition” of some of those looking to gain influence in the Pacific.

Following his speech on Monday, Peters again refused to single anyone out.

But New Zealand would speak up when it saw something said or done, which was not in the best interests of Pacific peoples, he said. 

“We have all these huge challenges, characterised by reasonably complex environmental, economic and human development challenges before us now."

Peters reiterated the importance of the Pacific Reset and the increase in Official Development Assistance (ODA) spending, which came as part of the massive foreign affairs budget boost last year.

With ODA boosted to 0.28 percent of gross national income (GNI) - above the 0.21 percent it was set to hit without a boost - New Zealand’s influence and presence in the region had increased.

But Peters said his country could not compete with other global powers on dollar value, instead, increased presence and enhanced partnerships made sure New Zealand’s influence “and the things we stand for” was not “sublimated” by others.

“Values we stand for need to prevail in this part of the world. We need to make sure we don’t lose this contest of strategic challenges.”

On the whole, it was too early to say whether the Pacific Reset was keeping other influences in check, he said.

“But we are, for the first time in a long time, stepping up to the challenges we face.”

He also hoped that presence would increase with further boosts to the ODA budget, saying New Zealand was not doing as well as many other countries.

But he would not put a figure or percentage on that ODA boost, implying it was subject to a budget bid.

“What we’ve failed to do is tell the ordinary New Zealander why this investment is important.”

Peters’ comments about partnership and increasing New Zealand’s influence comes at a time when increasing strategic competition is exacerbating the region’s vulnerabilities.

“What perhaps is not so keenly apparent is the understanding of just how dramatic some of these challenges we face now are, as opposed to where they were five years ago, 10 years ago, or dare I say it, in the years before that.”

Peters said the upscaled Pacific strategy was brought about as a matter of “serious urgency”.

“We have all these huge challenges, characterised by reasonably complex environmental, economic and human development challenges before us now...

“It’s often confusing when all sorts of phrases are used to mask what below them is really happening, and sometimes it veils the truth, and it fails to impart the character and the shape of the events that we’re trying to deal with.”

And while he invited those with the right motives to step up their financial and partnership assistance in the region, he warned off any whose actions would undermine the interests and the values of Pacific people and nations in order to gain “narrow and egregious personal and political advantage”.

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