Analysis-Alarmed by Solomon Islands-China pact, NZ finds its voice on security -Breaking
WELLINGTON, (Reuters) – New Zealand is long considered the neutral, if not absent voice, on China within the “Five Eyes,” western alliance. This was so evident that it only 12 months ago, its support for the group was questioned.
This appears to be changing with the recent signing of a Security Pact between China, Solomon Islands and neighboring China.
Analysts say New Zealand has become more assertive in its security posture and Beijing’s increasing presence in South Pacific. This shift reflects worries that Beijing will gain a strategic foothold in the region and could lead to a destabilizing effect on Western influence.
Robert Ayson of Victoria University of Wellington’s Strategic Studies Department said, “It’s really a challenge to New Zealand’s sense of the Pacific’s direction.”
Jacinda Adern, the Prime Minister, described the Pact as “gravely concerning”, and called upon Solomon Islands for a discussion within the Pacific Islands Forum.
Ardern later stated that “What really is changing is the level assertiveness or aggression we see around us,” during a United States-New Zealand Business Summit.
New Zealand was previously hesitant to respond to such criticisms. This is due in part, analysts believe, to its heavy trade dependence and intimate economic relationship with China.
The new agreement, which was signed by China and Solomon Islands, will not affect peace in the area. The details of the final agreement are not known, but Wang Wenbin (Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson) said that the agreement required China to assist the Solomon Islands in maintaining social order and coping with natural disasters. It did not present a threat to the United States.
According to Anna Powles, Centre for Defence and Security Studies Massey University, the statements of Ardern and Nanaia Mhuta regarding Chinese security in the Pacific were an indication that they agreed with U.S. and Australian concerns.
She stated that “it also sent a message to the Pacific that New Zealand supported the regional collective security initiatives and to third parties (specifically China) that the Pacific region would manage regional crises.”
Although small, New Zealand has a greater soft power than any of its allies in the Pacific. There is a significant Pacifika population, strong cultural, family and business ties, as well as territories within the region.
New Zealand views itself as part of the Pacific and seeks stability and prosperity in its neighbors. To protect trade and to ensure telecommunications connections, it needs an Indo-Pacific that is open and free.
David Vaeafe is the programme manager for the non-governmental Pacific Cooperation Foundation. He said that the Pacific relationship was more than just about money. It also meant listening to and understanding the needs of the Pacific.
He stated that New Zealand’s Pacific foreign policy was slowly shifting from being “you shouldn’t be doing this” to becoming consultative and part of the process.
FIVE EYES CRITEICISM
One year ago there was concern about Wellington’s support for the Five Eyes alliance with Australia Britain Canada, Canada, and the United States. Mahuta had stated that Wellington wasn’t comfortable with the expansion of the group.
It was criticised that New Zealand did not sign joint statements with other Five Eyes members. These included one about Hong Kong and another regarding the origins COVID-19.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell told a business summit earlier this month that New Zealand’s underestimation of security risks in the past appeared unlikely to be an issue.
He stated, “I believe there’s an acceptance that the challenges facing the world stage today aren’t so far away – they are closer and have direct implications.”
Japan and New Zealand already have plans to strengthen security ties. Other moves are also in the works.
Mahuta visited Fiji towards the end March. He signed an agreement, which will enable information sharing on security issues.
A tuna processing facility for Solomon Islands, partly New Zealand-backed, was unveiled at the beginning of this month. It is expected to provide more than 5,500 new jobs.
According to its website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade quietly transferred more funds into Pacific development cooperation budgets for 2021-2024. Since December, the fund was nearly NZ$120million ($75 million), to $1.55Billion.
New Zealand will likely provide further details about Pacific spending in its budget, as the minister of defence from New Zealand previously highlighted this area as a priority.
VUW’s Ayson indicated that New Zealand has a strong alliance with Australia and the United States. While we don’t always agree, it does not mean that Australia and New Zealand are as close as possible. But New Zealand has a strong security alliance.
($1 equals 1.6038 New Zealand dollars).