Winston Peters says Pacific security concerns 'avoidable', United States warned years ago of need for cooperation

Winston Peters has said "serious security concerns" in the Pacific were "avoidable" in a speech where he advocated for New Zealand standing alongside like-minded countries in the region and backing that up with "our finances and resources".  

The former Foreign Affairs Minister said a time when foreign policy was "nonpolitical" and when politicians held the view that offshore "we would face the world as one people" is "sadly" no longer.

"As a consequence, there are dark clouds gathering on our foreign policy horizon and far, far too many of our countrymen-and-women, preoccupied with domestic affairs, do not see the linkages between events offshore and their own economic and social survival in this country."

Peters spent much of a speech at the University of Otago on Monday afternoon detailing actions he and his officials took between during the last term of Government to persuade other nations to engage more in the Pacific, something he says the US is only just catching up with.

He mentioned remarks by the United States' Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, who earlier this month said, regarding countries committed to safeguarding the Pacific, "there is not as much coordination among some of those countries as you might expect". 

"Hallelujah," Peters said. "That's what we were trying to tell them back in '18, '19, and '20." 

He said it was critical New Zealand and others engaged in the Pacific as "untoward events" there "will have a most adverse effect on our economy and our security". 

"Going about our business separately will not see us get the results and achievement we seek to accomplish. Going about it collectively - and thank heaven the Americans are starting to say it now - if we pool our resources, we will do a whole lot better."

It comes against a backdrop of growing geopolitical tensions in the Pacific, mainly over China's recent security cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands that New Zealand and others oppose and have said could lead to the militarisation of the region.

"Today we face again serious security concerns emerging in the Pacific – The Blue Continent in which we live," Peters said. "Many of these concerns were avoidable and it may yet not be too late if lessons are learnt 'right here, right now', first by ourselves and second by like-minded countries."

Current Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has said the security pact was a surprise and the result of a "relationship failure"

Mahuta, as well as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, have said the Solomons should have looked to its Pacific neighbours for assistance rather than going to China. They've pointed to the Biketawa Declaration, a framework between Pacific countries for coordinating regional security needs.

Peters said on Monday for that framework "to succeed many of the signatories needed the assistance of wealthier countries, some of which were signatories to the declaration".

"As a consequence, there are dark clouds gathering on our foreign policy horizon."
"As a consequence, there are dark clouds gathering on our foreign policy horizon." Photo credit: Getty Images.

Late in April, Campbell ventured to the Solomons in an attempt to stop the security deal from going ahead. He admitted that "the United States has to step up its game across the board".

"We indicated clearly that the Solomons is a proud sovereign nation and we respect that, but we also laid out that if they decided to take certain steps that we thought created a potential security risk for the wider region, then we would have concerns with that."

In response to a question, Peters said the "challenges that we face require the Americans to cooperate with us".

"That's our greatest opportunity. They need friends everywhere in the Pacific and so do we." 

Peters said New Zealand must get alongside other like-minded countries and back that up "with our finances and our resources and our organisation". Countries he mentioned include Australia, France, Indonesia, Japan New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

China's growing influence in the Pacific is one of the main foreign policy issues facing the United States. US President Joe Biden is currently in Asia, where he's expected to make a number of announcements, including regarding a new Indo-Pacific economic framework seen as a counter to China

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said being in Japan and South Korea would allow Biden to encourage greater multilateral cooperation "with an eye, of course, to China's coercion and intimidation in the region". 

Nanaia Mahuta and Jacinda Ardern.
Nanaia Mahuta and Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Peters, who served as Foreign Affairs Minister under Prime Minister Ardern between 2017 and 2020, highlighted actions the Government took at the time to have a greater presence in the Pacific and get other countries to also increase their engagement. 

"We acknowledged that the Pacific had become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by Great Power ambition and that Pacific Island leaders had 'more options' leading to a degree of strategic anxiety," Peters said.

"We suggested that Australia, the European Union, the United States and others like ourselves 'better pool our energies and resources' to maintain our relative influence."

That included an increase in development spending at part of Peters' Pacific Reset. He said on Monday that as a proportion of Gross National Income, the spending had fallen from 0.3 percent in 2008 to 0.25 percent in 2016. 

"We committed to reverse that decline and return to the 2008 percentage figure with $714 million new funding over the next four years."

He said New Zealand "warned" the United States that "time was of the essence" and that "Pacific issues for both our governments were domestic as well as foreign policy matters". 

"In 2018 and 2019 New Zealand urged a greater intensity on regional cooperation and it’s to be hoped that this will now urgently become the case."

Peters also spoke of how he believed it isn't true to say New Zealand is "punching above our weight" on foreign policy matters, calling that an excuse of those who never commit to provide our diplomats adequate funding. 

"For over four decades, with just two exceptions, our diplomats and MFAT have been asked to do a task from the very end of the Western Pacific without the means to do so.

"That is not to suggest that they have not done an incredible job with the resources given them but it’s truly regrettable to reflect on the void of misunderstanding that exists between MFAT funding and economic performance back in New Zealand."

He criticised the practice of appointing former politicians to diplomatic roles. 

"Diplomacy and diplomats should be confined to careerists dedicated to the art of diplomacy and not former politicians being 'grass widowed', 'rewarded', or as a 'trade off' for early retirement from politics. Only in exceptional exceptions should this rule not be followed."

Moving senior politicians to diplomatic postings is not uncommon. 

Earlier this year, controversial Labour MP Louisa Wall was made the first Pacific Gender Equality Ambassador. In 2014, Shane Jones, a former NZ First MP, was made an Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development.