Defence Minister Ron Mark hopes China 'adheres to openness and transparency like we do'

Defence Minister Ron Mark is hopeful China "adheres to openness and transparency" like New Zealand, as the Defence Force warns against "geostrategic competition" in the Pacific. 

The minister launched the Defence Force's Advancing Pacific Partnerships 2019 paper on Tuesday, which outlines challenges facing the region, including competition for influence. 

"New Zealand and Pacific Island countries are confronting a series of complex disrupters, which include climate change, transnational organised crime, and resource competition", the paper says. 

"More will be expected of New Zealand Defence on all of these challenges," it adds. "Countering these disrupters is significant for the maintenance of regional security."

It goes on to say these disrupters will intersect with "greater competition for influence in the Pacific", adding that "external actors seeking to enhance their regional presence may leverage these issues as vectors of influence". 

The Defence Force has pointed to China as a threat before with a policy document last year warning of its "alternative model of democracy" that challenges "international governance values and norms".  

While the latest report doesn't name China, the minister didn't shy away from mentioning the superpower during a media briefing after the report's launch in Wellington.

"I think China is an important player in the Pacific and one that should not be ignored," Mark, a New Zealand First MP, said. 

"What's important is we all need to understand that at the end of the day, the countries which will determine who they engage with will be the Pacific Island nations themselves."

Defence Minister and NZ First MP Ron Mark.
Defence Minister and NZ First MP Ron Mark. Photo credit: Newshub

He said there are areas where New Zealand will require collaboration and cooperation with China, particularly as the impact of climate change becomes more severe. 

"I like to think [China has] the same interests at heart that we do, and that is the prosperity and the wellbeing and the sovereign rights of Pacific Island nations, and that they to adhere to openness and transparency in the same way we do."

Mark said China isn't the only player to watch, pointing to the likes of  Britain, with its territory in the Antarctic and links to former colonies, and France with territories such as New Caledonia. 

There is also the United States, with its territories in the Pacific including the Mariana Islands and American Samoa. 

"Then, of course, we have China who - it's no secret - have moved into the Pacific in a way in which they seek to assist, and we welcome any assistance they can give," Mark said.

China's growing influence 

China's spending in the Pacific has increased in recent years, leading commentators to speculate that the country is challenging Australia and New Zealand for influence over the region. 

Data from Australian non-profit Lowy Institute shows that while China and Australia committed more than US$5 billion (NZ$7.8 billion) each to the Pacific from 2011-2017, China had spent less. 

The data, published by CNN, shows Australia has spent more than US$6 billion (NZ$9.4 billion) in the region, trumping China's spending of more than US$1 billion (NZ$1.5 billion). 

New Zealand is also competing for influence, with Foreign Minister Winston Peters announcing last year that the Government would commit $714 million in aid to the Pacific over the next four years. 

It followed former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warning of Chinese efforts to gain political power and influence policy decisions in New Zealand and the Pacific. 

At the Pacific Islands Forum in August, leaders endorsed the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which affirms that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the Pacific. 

New Zealand's Pacific Reset, announced in March 2018, responded to regional challenges with a lift in the Government's investment in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced at the Pacific Islands Forum that $150 million from New Zealand's $300 million global climate finance commitment would go to the Pacific, compared to Australia's AU$500 million (NZ$530 million). 

Australia and New Zealand are generally larger and wealthier than the other countries that make up the rest of the forum, as China is not involved. 

The Defence Force paper ultimately acknowledges that with the increasing presence of external actors, it "must evolve". 

"We have an imperative to continue to safeguard New Zealand and Pacific security interests, and to be present - to be a source of stability and a reliable, valued partner, as our region undergoes change and adapts to new realities."