Championing China in an already-heated Pacific

Former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, named today as the new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, said China had been increasingly supportive of island nations. “China is very present in the Pacific. Unfortunately for a long time, America has not been.” Photo: Cook Islands News

NEWSROOM – FEBRUARY 4, 2021

Jonathan Milne – Jonathan Milne is the managing editor for Newsroom Pro.

Analysis: One of the strongest champions of China’s expansion into Oceania has today been elected Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, putting the spotlight on New Zealand’s shifting position.

No doubt the well-reviewed soy and ginger glass noodle Asian salad will be on the menu at Zane Grey’s Restaurant in the Bay of Islands, when Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta addresses the Diplomatic Corps there tonight. I hope so. It is one of a million reminders of the healthy influence of China and wider east Asia on New Zealand’s culture and economy. 

Another reminder was Fonterra raising its forecast payment to farmers yesterday, with strong demand from Chinese buyers pushing whole milk powder prices to a near five-year high.

There are, of course, unhealthy influences as well, like its distinct scepticism about freedoms we hold dear; free speech, free media, freedom to gather.

Gathering ahead of the Waitangi Day commemorations beginning tomorrow, the assembled diplomats will be listening most attentively for the balance Mahuta strikes between China and the US. She had earlier ticked off her Cabinet colleague Damien O’Connor for publicly urging Australia to develop a more mature relationship with China – but O’Connor’s blunt language may represent this Government’s position better than anyone admits.

Writing today, Dr Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University, points to comments made by Mahuta in an Australian TV interview, in which she says New Zealand and China have “a maturing relationship”.

New Zealand is “predictable” and China understands the issues that we will stand apart on, she says, giving the US and China equal billing as big countries with a big influence at the bottom of the Pacific. That’s a far cry from her predecessor Winston Peters, who pleaded for US President Donald Trump’s help.

Mahuta doesn’t want the old ANZUS cavalry for the Pacific, Ayson writes. It’s not about the balance of power. Right now it’s all about vaccinations for Covid and cooperating to address climate change.

“China is very present in the Pacific. Unfortunately for a long time, America has not been.”
– Henry Puna

That’s at odds with America’s continued military redeployment to its Pacific bases. When I visited Pearl Harbor a year ago, just before Covid closed the borders, the rhetoric from US military leaders was uncompromising. China was committing “economic blackmail” said one; another said America was “doubling down” in Oceania to confront China’s growing threat in the region.

But Cook Islands’ former Prime Minister Henry Puna, who was named today as the new Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, said then that China had been increasingly (financially) supportive of island nations. “China is very present in the Pacific. Unfortunately for a long time, America has not been.”

That is the context in which Mahuta places China and US; two similarly-weighted heavyweight contenders in the Pacific. “What I’m concerned about is that the Pacific not be used in a pawn in anybody else’s interests,” she says. “The Pacific has a challenge of its own during this time and it’s important that those who are interested in the resilience of the Pacific, that we continue to work alongside them as partners.”

Already this year, New Zealand has declined to sign a Five Eyes statement condemning China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and has upgraded its trade agreement with China.

The second Ardern Government is making it very clear that it will not sacrifice its relationship with China, no matter the hawkish rhetoric of US Presidents Obama, Trump and now Joe Biden. The big question is, how do we then respond to China’s egregious breaches of human rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uighur region? Mahuta’s response seems to be, carefully, discreetly, and predictably.

We are awaiting the nomination of a new US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, for a clearer indication of how the US will respond to this country’s tightrope act. But we shouldn’t expect much change from the bullish anti-China rhetoric of the last ambassador. At the weekend, Mahuta had a phone call with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. His spokesperson said afterwards: “Together the United States and New Zealand will continue to tackle the greatest challenges confronting our world in order to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” 

It is quite clear that the US sees China as one of those challenges.

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