Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern 'frustrated' by criticism over Nanaia Mahuta's absence from Pacific

The Prime Minister has defended Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta amid criticism she has been absent in the portfolio by not travelling to the Pacific like her Australian and Chinese counterparts recently have.

"I have been frustrated by some of the commentary. I feel like some of the commentary we have seen does a disservice to the Pacific. These are sovereign nations who have had relationships with China that span many years, as New Zealand does," Jacinda Ardern said.

"The idea that they are somehow unable to determine their own relationships with China and that somehow [they'd] be dictated or persuaded by visits from New Zealand or Australia sits totally against our view that it is about partnership."

The Opposition has torn into Mahuta over the past two weeks for not travelling to the Pacific to reassure island nations that they can look to Aotearoa for security and economic support. It comes amid a push by China to grow its influence in the region, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi touring the islands trying to secure region-wide trade and security agreement

Meanwhile, Penny Wong, who only became the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister in late May, has already been on multiple trips to the Pacific in an effort to strengthen ties. 

But Ardern, speaking to AM on Tuesday morning, said that's expected of a new minister.

"When you're a new government, you get out quickly to go and see people. We are obviously not a new government. We already have those relationships. We are not in a standing start," Ardern said.

"In the last 18 months, we have had 100 ministerial or formal engagements with our Pacific Island counterparts. That's me, that's the minister engaging with the Pacific."

Ardern told reporters at Parliament later on Tuesday that those engagements are "everything from Zoom engagements to phone calls, to in some cases face-to-face".

"We obviously had the Prime Minister of Tonga with us recently. We had ministers Henare and Mahuta into Fiji, so it would be across the board."

Also at Parliament, Mahuta said that she's confident in her ability to manage New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific.

"I trust myself in terms of the relationships that we can continue to build on to ensure that those conversations that we are having are strong, are in the interests of the Pacific, and that we remain closely aligned on many things."

Due to COVID-19 border closures, most of New Zealand's engagements with other countries have been virtual. That includes Mahuta's conversation last month with the Solomon Islands Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremiah Manele, which came amid concern over the nation's controversial security deal with China. 

Mahuta's first Pacific trip since becoming the minister following the 2020 election was in March, when she flew to Fiji to meet with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and attend a Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat event. 

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub.

Ardern told AM New Zealand is also stepping up the aid it's delivering into the Pacific. 

"The top three countries for overseas aid and development spend in the Pacific is New Zealand, Australia and Japan, and we've just increased our investment into the region by 45 percent over the next three years."

Ardern denied that the "money's doing the talking" rather than ministers having face-to-face contact with their counterparts, as AM's Ryan Bridge put to her. 

"I feel quite strongly about this. Some of the commentary I've seen does not appreciate or at least give any acknowledgement that the Pacific are sovereign nations, who will make their own decisions around engagement," Ardern told AM.

"But the idea that New Zealand has not been present when we've worked closely with almost every Pacific nation on climate change, on COVID-19, on vaccine support. We are of the Pacific. They are more than just our friends, they are our family.

"The idea that whether or not you've visited during border controls is a measure of your relationship is just wrong."

She stressed New Zealand should not be the one "dictating" to Pacific Island nations who they should be engaging with. 

"These are sovereign nations. They determine their engagement with other countries. Now, the idea that China is engaging simply because New Zealand hasn't visited because of COVID is also wrong. It's much more complex than that."

Ardern said that Mahuta is "currently in the process of organising her first visits into countries who have only recently opened their borders", stressing that New Zealand wasn't seeking exemptions to go into countries with closed borders.

Mahuta has previously said she wants to travel to the Solomon Islands as soon as schedules allow and is looking forward to participating in the Pacific Islands Forum sometime in the coming months. 

Tensions in the region escalated this year after China signed a controversial security agreement with the Solomon Islands, which a leaked draft suggested could lead Beijing to establish a military base in the region. It was opposed by New Zealand, which said the Solomons should look for security support from within the Pacific. 

News that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang would try to sign Pacific nations up to a sweeping trade and security agreement while on his tour also set off alarm bells, but while he was able to secure smaller one-on-one deals, the Chinese representative couldn't get backing for a regional pact. 

Asked last month what she made of Wang touring the Pacific, Ardern made the point that the United States has also recently visited the region

"It is a contested region. From our perspective, we will be consistent, regardless of who is in our region and engaging with the members of it, that as long as those values of transparency, openness and peace and stability are at the heart of that activity, that is what we are advocates for. We will constantly seek for that de-escalation."

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has said New Zealand and like-minded countries need to pump more resources into the Pacific to counter China's influence.

It's not the first time Mahuta has been accused of being hands-off in the portfolio. She received criticism in May after it was revealed she had had no direct communication with New Zealand's Ambassador to Russia or the Embassy in Moscow since the Ukraine invasion began.