New Zealand to participate in ministerial meeting of new group formed to counter China's Pacific moves

New Zealand will participate in a ministerial meeting of a Pacific-focused group established amid China's attempts to grow its presence in the region.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has confirmed to Newshub she will virtually attend a meeting of foreign affairs ministers from the five Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) countries. Those are Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Mahuta said it was important the Pacific Islands Forum's role in the region is acknowledged by the group.

"In so far as our participation has been invited, I think it's an important conversation to be a part of. I'm hopeful that all Pacific partners are part of that conversation and that there is formal recognition of the Pacific Island Forum as the regional architecture for which to engage in," she said.

The Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper was first to report this week that a meeting of the ministers in New York was being arranged for later in September, an upgrade from previous meetings of just officials. 

It comes ahead of the US-Pacific Island Country Summit, which will see Pacific Island leaders descend on Washington DC to discuss cooperation in the region.

The PBP group was announced in June by the US, with little fanfare here in New Zealand. 

A White House statement described the grouping as an "inclusive, informal mechanism to support Pacific priorities" guided by the Pacific Islands with a focus on "Pacific regionalism, sovereignty, transparency, [and] accountability".

The establishment of the group raised eyebrows overseas as it came hot on the heels of China seeking security and cooperation agreements with Pacific Island nations. This was picked up on by some international media, like the South China Morning Post, which said the group would be used to "blunt China's influence".

The China Daily, a Chinese state media paper, said while the group claimed to focus on Pacific priorities, "the move is undoubtedly a customised endeavour to counter China's influence in the region". 

Yomiuri Shimbun reported this week that the PBP wants to strengthen cooperation in maritime surveillance and in response to natural disasters.

The United States itself has upped its commitment to the Pacific in recent months, deciding to establish embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, increasing economic development funding and developing a new national strategy towards the region. 

A deal between China and the Solomon Islands earlier this sparked concern about Beijing's intentions for the Pacific, with New Zealand among the countries saying it was unnecessary. China went on to seek further deals with other Pacific nations, but was unsuccessful in gaining a regional agreement.

Mahuta met virtually with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in June. 

"Minister Mahuta acknowledged that China has been present in the Pacific for a long time, but underlined the importance of engagement taking place in a manner that advances Pacific priorities, is supportive of Pacific regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum, and addresses the significant challenges in the region," a Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout of the meeting said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stressed that China's presence in the Pacific is not new and that it's not up to individual countries to decide what's best for the region. She said conversations around security arrangements should be had through institutions like the Pacific Islands Forum.