New Zealand must be more involved in Pacific, Opposition says, amid new China revelations

National's Gerry Brownlee says it appears New Zealand has been blindsided by revelations overnight that China is seeking a Pacific-wide policing and security deal.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand has "constant engagement" with the Pacific and is urging island nations to look within the region if they face any security challenges.

Reuters reported on Wednesday night China has asked 10 Pacific Island nations to consider joining a region-wide agreement, which would see the countries working with Beijing in traditional and non-tradition security areas, like policing and cyber-security. 

It comes just as the Chinese Foreign Minister begins his tour of the Pacific in the Solomon Islands. Beijing and Honiara earlier this year signed a controversial security cooperation agreement that sparked outrage from the likes of New Zealand, Australia and the United States. A leaked draft version of that pact suggested a naval base could be established in the Solomons, but the local government denies that will happen.

Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo has written to Pacific leaders about China's new proposed agreements, according to Reuters, saying they should be rejected as it could lead to a new "Cold War" between China and the West. 

Brownlee, National's foreign affairs spokesperson and a former Foreign Affairs Minister, told AM on Thursday morning it appears New Zealand has been once again blindsided. 

"I think the question is, how didn't they have some idea of why there was a 10-country visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister with a party of 20 others, and have some idea from their contacts in the Pacific what this was all about," Brownlee said. 

The MP said Pacific Island governments want for their people the same as what New Zealand wants for its people. 

"[They] are looking for how they achieve that best, and I think China's capitalising a little bit on that. So that puts a whole lot back on countries like New Zealand, Australia and the United States to be more involved."

ACT Party foreign affairs spokesperson Brooke van Velden is questioning why New Zealand's current Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta isn't touring the Pacific. 

"Since the borders opened, Nanaia Mahuta should have already toured the Pacific meeting leaders and delivering messages from New Zealand," she said.

"Unfortunately, the Government has not taken the threat to Pacific security seriously. We are a small nation, but we should be a leading democracy in the region."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

But Ardern, who is currently in the United States, believes New Zealand is doing its bit. She said New Zealand has "constant engagement" with Pacific nations. 

"Just recently, both myself and the Minister of Foreign Affairs met with the Tongan Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu was recently due to engage, the Prime Minister of Fiji we have visited very recently."

She said many Pacific Island nations have only just begun opening up after closing their borders due to COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Mahuta told Newshub "there's definitely an interest to go and travel around the Pacific". She also mentioned interest in participating in the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum, which is expected to take place in the coming months. 

Mahuta has previously said she's been unable to visit some countries due to COVID-19 protocols and border closures. She has made a number of trips this year, however, including to Europe in February and Fiji in March.

Her new Australian counterpart Penny Wong was sworn in as minister on Monday and has since visited Japan to support new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the QUAD meeting and is visiting Fiji on Thursday. 

Ardern continued to insist on Thursday that any response to security issues within the Pacific should come from Pacific nations themselves. 

"We're very strongly of the view that we have within the Pacific the means and ability to respond to any security challenges that exist and New Zealand is willing to do that."

Mahuta spoke with the Solomons' Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremiah Manele on Wednesday morning. They discussed "the critical importance of the Pacific Islands Forum as a space for members to work together on issues of mutual interest and concern".

"[She] reiterated Aotearoa New Zealand's concerns about the recently signed security agreement between Solomon Islands and China, and welcomed Minister Manele's assurances that the agreement will not lead to a Chinese military base", an MFAT readout says. 

On Monday, former Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand and like-minded countries needed to pump more resources into the Pacific to counter China's influence.

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