New Zealand has been overdue to show strong results in the Pacific Islands. Not a moment too soon, this is what Prime Minister Ardern delivered.
The Pacific Islands region hasn’t had so much attention since World War 2. We can thank China for that.
A document leaked in March revealed Beijing’s plan to ink a secret security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The deal authorises China to regularly make warship visits and provide training and assistance for Solomon Islands policing. Worried that Beijing might leverage the deal to acquire its first military base in Oceania, the United States and Australia quickly dispatched envoys to dissuade Solomon Islands Manasseh Sogovare from signing the agreement. He inked it anyway.
Then in late May Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a whirlwind 10 day 8-country tour of the South Pacific to win concurrence on “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision”, a sweeping multilateral development and security agreement that would permanently enmesh Beijing in the region. In the end, Pacific Island foreign ministers rebuffed this substantial Chinese overture, and Wang returned to Beijing empty handed.
It is in no small part the effectiveness of New Zealand diplomacy leading up to the 2022 Pacific Island Forum particularly from New Zealand that China’s effort was reversed.
A critical further win for New Zealand and Fiji was the regathering of unity among almost all the members following a walkout of all the Melanesian leaders. This was enabled through the Suva Agreement. In the end only Kiribati walked out. This Forum has been operating now for 51 years with New Zealand as a primary founder, so retaining unity with a set of more balanced power-and-responsibility agreements between all three sub-regions was the first critical scene-setter.
Another win was for the United States Vice President to provide a series of actual commitments, finally, after talking about it for many years. We are a region that is getting more diplomatic investment, and that is vital as an official conduit into the powerful.
The Forum also provided one-on-one assurance from the Solomon Islands to Australian and New Zealand leaders that while the agreement with China is signed, there will be no Chinese base built or operating there.
Hugs all round it was, in a tonal shift you didn’t get from the previous Prime Minister Scott Morrison or indeed John Key.
It was a critical meeting because COVID has as in New Zealand damaged a whole generation of young people and set back the economic progress of many small island nations.
The United States sees this and has been looking to both New Zealand and Australia for “guidance and support” in the Pacific according to a November MFAT briefing paper. Apparently the economic future for Pacific Islands is “perilous”, “An economic decline will likely erase several years of progress in economic development and poverty reduction. Without large amounts of external financial support, these could turn into major economic crises.” “With job prospects scarce and labour mobility curtailed by COVID-19, social inequalities will be exacerbated. Some countries will face a growing pool of marginalised youth – half the region’s population will be under 25 by 2030.”
To put not too fine a point on it, the key donors like Australia, World Bank and EU into the Pacific Islands are going to be needed more and more to prop up the economies and societies of these tiny states.
With China expanding its foreign aid programs in the region, the geopolitical competition for influence among China and other international and regional powers is heating up. However recent data from the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Aid Map finds that China’s aid pledges tend to be overstated. Australia and New Zealand continue to be leading donors, and not lenders.
The peoples on our doorstep have been saying for a while that they are going to lose from climate change the fastest. The Australian and New Zealand governments are certainly doing their bit to fund mitigation and adaptation.
What Prime Minister Ardern helped make very real in the Pacific Islands Forum is something we haven’t had in over 50 years: a foreign policy that is both independent and effective. It is based on principles that she set out very clearly in the Chatham House session a few weeks ago. Bring people together, don’t be beholden to any one great power, let small states find strength in collective dialogue, building international trade helps focus on what we can solve together, keep pushing weapons out of the Pacific, and let persuasion and facts generate unity rather than militarisation.
There is no one across our current Parliament that can come close to being able to achieve something similar let alone state it, and arguably there isn’t an equivalent to Ardern in the southern hemisphere.
Prime Minister Ardern is showing that there really is an alternative to being sucked into a binary Great Power contest within the Pacific, and the Pacific Forum was evidence of that.
This is a lot to have achieved in 2022 for New Zealand.