Carmel Sepuloni downplays China tensions at start of tour of Pacific nations

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni.
Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni is downplaying the issue of tensions between China and the West as she begins a five-day Pacific mission.

Sepuloni, who is also the Associate Foreign Affairs Minister for the Pacific, flew out to Solomon Islands on Sunday accompanied by Minister for Pacific Peoples Barbara Edmonds and the Climate Change Minister James Shaw, as well as other community leaders.

The 50-strong delegation will also visit Tonga and Fiji. It is the first Pacific mission post pandemic and climate change is expected to dominate talks.

Also likely to be on the agenda is the relationship with economic powerhouse China, which has close ties with all three countries at a time when the West views China as a threat to its hegemony.

The Minister said it would be an invaluable opportunity to strengthen New Zealand's relationships and reaffirm the commitment to working alongside Pacific whānau to respond to challenges.

Sepuloni told Morning Report there would be a range of topics discussed with Solomon Island officials today, including, education and climate-related matters. She will be meeting the nation's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Last year Solomon Islands signed a security deal with China, which caused disquiet among Australian, New Zealand and US governments.

Since that deal there has been a string of diplomat missions by alarmed Western powers to the region. In September last year a summit was held in the US with Pacific Island leaders.

Sepuloni would not be drawn on whether she would be discussing the issue with Manasseh. She would not comment on whether US influence in the Indo Pacific region and tensions with China should be a key issue in discussions with Pacific leaders.

There has been increasing militarisation and geopolitical machinations in the Pacific. A recent deal involving Western military alliance AUKUS, which will see Australia spend $400 billion on a fleet of nuclear submarines, has alarmed Pacific leaders.

China has called the latest move an error that would stoke tensions and spark a new arms race, increasing the chances of open conflict. There have been talks between New Zealand and high-ranking US officials on New Zealand joining the alliance with Australia, the United Kingdom and the US.

"There's a range of issues that will be front of mind," Sepuloni said. "Certainly when I met with specific leaders in February, it wasn't so much anything to do with China that was front of mind or even discussed. It was climate change. It was labour mobility, it was education, it was a chat about the challenges that came with the global inflation and cost of living.

"So we'll see what they put on the table. But we've certainly got our agenda lined up with regards to our visit, and looking forward to seeing what is priority and the focus for conversation from the Pacific leaders that we meet with."

She said the focus of her visits would be to shore up New Zealand's relationship with those nations by engagement.

"Firstly, we'll be connecting because we haven't actually had a chance to engage with the Pacific to the extent that we had prior to Covid. So that's really meant that we haven't been able to connect to the same extent.

"We'll be discussing resilience issues that are shared challenges for us across the Pacific region, and solutions moving forward. And just that focus on whakawhanaungatanga, that we've got a special relationship with the Pacific. And we need to continue strengthening and building that."

The Minister said the Pacific regions had not been neglected over the past number of years and that Ministers and parliamentarians had travelled to the region, but with Covid-19 restrictions, bringing a large delegation had been impractical in recent times.

Sepuloni said she was relieved that was now possible.

"The interesting thing that New Zealand does on its Pacific missions that no one else does, is that we bring a delegation, and most of them are part of the Pacific diaspora in New Zealand. They span from across the social sector, health, education, or business, and they are connected to the Pacific as well."