China-Solomon Islands security deal: National dismisses Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's COVID-19 Pacific engagement excuse

National MP Gerry Brownlee does not accept Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern citing COVID-19 as the reason for less face-to-face engagement in the Pacific.

It comes after Winston Peters, who was Foreign Minister in the previous Labour-NZ First administration, speculated that the current Labour Government's slimmed-down engagement in the Pacific contributed to the Solomon Islands seeking a security deal with China. 

Peters visited the Solomon Islands in 2019 as Foreign Minister at a time when the country's new Prime Minister announced he was looking at establishing ties with China instead of its traditional alliance with Taiwan.

"We needed to intensify our interests," Peters told RNZ this week. "There are a lot of excuses that will be given - like the advent of COVID and economic circumstances - but the reality is that... we should have accelerated, not backed off."

Peters accused the Government of neglecting the Pacific following revelations the Solomon Islands was negotiating a security deal with China. Under the terms of a leaked draft agreement, Beijing could base warships less than 2000km off Australia's east coast. 

Speaking at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, Ardern said she was "deeply concerned" by the purported security deal and rejected Peters' assertion that the Government had neglected the Pacific. 

"I think we should just point out where that criticism is coming from and it is from the previous Foreign Minister and obviously I totally disagree," Ardern said. 

"The accusation is made that we haven't visited the Pacific... Most of our Pacific Island neighbours have had their borders closed during the duration of COVID. 

"But we have demonstrated the partnerships are strong through, for instance, the significant programme through COVID, of economic support, vaccination support; and in fact, whilst we haven't been able to meet face-to-face, we have been there hand-in-hand working together through this health and economic crisis."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub

Brownlee, National's foreign affairs spokesperson, dismissed Ardern's explanation that COVID-19 had made it difficult to engage with the Pacific. 

"I think it's hard to put that much emphasis on that because the whole world has been somewhat hamstrung by that, including China," he told reporters on Tuesday. 

"The surprise of it is kind of understandable but on the other hand it probably indicates that the relationship between Australia and New Zealand and the Solomons hasn't been as good as it could be for a while and that should be something that is concerning for us and our relationship with other Pacific nations as well. 

"What should the Prime Minister be doing? I think at least talking to the Solomon Islands Government to ask for greater clarification about what the agreement actually means. 

"There's been some suggestion that it might have some effect on the ability to transit through that area and we would need to know that sealines remain during whatever arrangement they might come to. 

"The second is understanding a lot more about why that option is being taken. It's pretty easy to say, 'Well, China's a big economy, it's an emerging power and therefore we want to align that way'. If it's that simple, then I think we have a much bigger problem on our hands."

National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee.
National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern confirmed on Tuesday she had spoken with her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison about the situation with China and the Solomon Islands. 

"We continue to have the shared concerns over the ongoing issues with the Solomon Islands and their engagement with China in a way that may add to the militarisation of the Pacific," Ardern told reporters. 

"We share those concerns but so does the Pacific and we do need to have a whole Pacific voice on this. This is not just about us - it's about our whole region."

The Government in December announced the deployment of 65 Defence Force personnel to the Solomon Islands after a request for help from the country following riots, sparked by the Solomon Islands Government's decision to recognise China over Taiwan.

It followed similar deployments by Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea aimed at restoring calm after protesters calling for the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare turned violent in the capital, Honiara.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced on Tuesday that the Government had agreed to extend the deployment of up to five Defence Force personnel, to be reviewed on May 31. 

"Ensuring the regional security of our Pacific region has long been the priority of this government, and we will continue to play our part in maintaining a safe and secure Pacific region," Mahuta said. 

Mahuta and Defence Minister Peeni Henare have been in Fiji for talks. 

Former Foreign Minister Winston Peters.
Former Foreign Minister Winston Peters. Photo credit: Newshub

"My talks last week with Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama and Minister of Defence Seruiratu underlined the importance of our Pacific whānau cooperating to address security needs in our region," Henare said on Tuesday. 

He said the extended Defence Force deployment to the Solomon Islands was "a great example of that ongoing cooperation". 

Mahuta added: "Solomon Islands' proposed agreement with China, while within Solomon Islands' sovereign rights, risks destabilising the current institutions and arrangements that have long ensured the Pacific region's security. 

"Given this would not benefit New Zealand or our Pacific neighbours we will continue to raise our strong condemnation of such an agreement directly with the countries involved."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters the Solomon Islands requested the deal with China. 

"Relevant countries should earnestly respect Solomon Islands' sovereignty and its independent decisions instead of deciding what others should and should not do self-importantly and condescendingly from a privileged position."