New Zealand’s foreign minister has defended herself against accusations of complacency in the wake of China’s dramatic push for greater influence in the Pacific region, saying New Zealand does “not need to be reactive to any other agenda from any other country”.
In the immediate aftermath of China’s attempt to sign 10 Pacific Island countries up to a sweeping regional security deal that appeared to catch the west off guard, and its announcement of bilateral deals with Solomon Islands, Samoa and Kiribati, the government has faced criticism from former diplomats and opposition politicians that it has been missing in action.
Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta should visit in-person, some said, following in the footsteps of her Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, who embarked on multiple trips just days after being sworn-in, in a bid to counter a grand diplomatic tour of the region by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.
Speaking to the Guardian, Mahuta maintained that New Zealand didn’t need to react to changing dynamics in the region.
Opposition critics, she said, “Seem in a bit of a frenzy about where we should be visiting, that we should be hot on the trail of this minister or that minister – and actually, that’s not how that’s not how we operate in New Zealand,” she said. “We don’t need to be reactive to any other agenda from any other country.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has accused the government of “dropping the ball” in the Pacific, and repeatedly said Mahuta should have followed her Chinese and Australian counterparts, but Mahuta rejected his assertion, saying Wong was pursuing the trip as a newly minted foreign minister building fresh relationships.
“I don’t think I need to be reactive or define my schedule of visits according to other foreign ministers and what they’re doing,” she said. “Because the conversation that we have in the Pacific is based on the value that we bring to a relationship which is warm and enduring.”
She said she had her “own timetable and agenda” for visiting the Pacific, and many Pacific nations still had borders closed because of Covid.
Mahuta visited Fiji in March, in her first trip to the region since the pandemic began. In the weeks since the Solomons agreement with China was announced, she has had several bilateral Zoom meetings with Pacific leaders, but has not booked any new in-person trips.
China’s ‘more assertive agenda’
Mahuta said it was clear that China was increasing its muscle in the region. “Without a doubt the signal in terms of a quick succession of visits from foreign minister Wang Yi signals a more assertive agenda from them towards the Pacific,” she said.
“We’ve calibrated our shift, understanding that the Pacific is a contested space – we’ve already anticipated greater interest in the Pacific,” she said, citing recent trips by both US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Wang.
Asked, however, whether the push by China and the US in recent months had resulted in any change or re-evaluation of New Zealand’s foreign policy approach, Mahuta indicated they remained essentially unchanged from those she had outlined for the Pacific relationship in November 2021 – building economic resilience, recovering from the pandemic, and responding to the climate crisis.
“With greater interest from superpowers in the Pacific, that’s what I’m saying to you: the focus has to be on the resilience of the Pacific … and in order to address the significant and substantial issue of climate change and its impact on the Pacific, we need to look at the issue of economic resilience, the level of vulnerability, and we need to look at debt distress.”
New Zealand sends almost 60% of its total aid budget to the Pacific, amounting to NZ$590m ($387m) in 2021/22, up from $524m the year before. The government allocated $75m in support for Pacific Island nations facing “fiscal crises” in the 2022 budget, on top of $325m in Covid-19 economic support over the past two years.
Mahuta’s stance echoes that of a number of Pacific leaders, who have argued that geopolitical manoeuvring is far from the most pressing issue they face.
This week, Fiji prime minister Bainimarama hit out at those engaged in “geopolitical point-scoring”, which “means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job has been lost to a coronavirus pandemic or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities”.
While New Zealand has been more cautious than Australia in its criticism of China’s Pacific push, it has nonetheless drawn Beijing’s ire, particularly for a joint statement that followed prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with Joe Biden.
“The hype-up of relevant issues in the joint statement by the US and New Zealand is out of ulterior motives to create disinformation and attack and discredit China,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday. “The US has military bases all over the world, yet it expresses concerns about normal security cooperation with other countries.”
The Chinese ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, said on Friday he had met Mahuta and “Reiterated China’s position on the recent US-NZ joint statement, and more importantly, compared notes on how China and NZ could steer the bilateral relations in the right direction to the benefit of both sides.”
On the nature of those conversations, Mahuta would not be drawn: “A range of issues were discussed at a broad level. It was a very short meeting,” she said. “Bilateral discussions are primarily for our consideration.”
Asked what New Zealand had communicated to China about the proposed regional Pacific deal at that meeting, she said: “My understanding is that the visit [by Wang Yi to the Pacific] did not eventuate in a consensus on a regional agreement. So there is not too much to discuss there.”