New Zealand's long-standing relationship, cultural ties with the Pacific strong enough to fend off China, says Associate Foreign Minister Aupito William Sio

Associate Foreign Affairs and Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio believes New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific is strong enough to fend off the approaches of a powerhouse country like China. 

It comes as Sio is in Fiji to meet with Pacific ministers, in place of Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Mahuta will travel to Fiji next week for the Pacific Islands Forum where leaders will gather at a time of growing concern in some countries about China's influence, highlighted this year by a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Appearing on Newshub Nation on Saturday, Sio said New Zealand's long-standing relationship with the Pacific is strong enough to counter "cheap loans" or guaranteed infrastructure from China.

"They are [strong enough] and they do underpin our engagement, but nonetheless, the COVID pandemic has really highlighted significant challenges for small government nations," he said.

"In some governments, you have one or two people who are dealing with work that in New Zealand we've got 10 or 20 people dealing with, and so our role here is significant because the Pacific do see us in a different light from other nations. 

"We have probably a far better understanding with people like myself, who have cultural intelligence and a long-standing working relationship, as well as family relationships, so they can trust that our approach is about the welfare of everyone in the region."

Sio believes New Zealand's relationship with leaders in the Pacific gives them an advantage over countries looking to establish themselves in the region. 

"I think our rhetoric has changed over time and certainly when you have Nanaia Mahuta, who is herself indigenous and she brings to the job those indigenous values which the Pacific recognises and understand the values of manaakitanga and the values of arohatanga," he said.

"We do all of this work and you put aside all our roles as ministers or whatever our roles are here, at the end of the day, many of these leaders are my elders. Many of these leaders are my brothers and sisters, and so what underpins our relationship now is that of these strong ties as members of the Pacific region and seeing Australia using the same rhetoric."

China's growing sway in the Pacific and the potential for militarisation in the region's small island nations has fanned concern, particularly in Australia and New Zealand as well as their partner, the US. But Sio said China's presence in the region is not new.

"You've got some countries who are celebrating 40, even 50 years of those relationships," he told Newshub Nation from Fiji. 

"So navigating that course with China is not new to the Pacific but there are some significant issues here. 

"The unity of the region, the viability of its infrastructure, whether it's fit for purpose for what's happening in the region, a new vision for the future that's going to be important, and of course, economic recovery from the pandemic."

Watch the full interview with Aupito William Sio above.

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