NZ is ‘blindsided’ by China’s Pacific foray
Beijing goes on a shopping spree, buying influence in Niue and the Cook Islands. By Hamish Rutherford and Matthew Rosenberg.
‘‘There’s a lot of heat on whether we’re being gamed right under our noses. We probably are.’’
China has ‘‘blindsided’’ New Zealand by doing a multimilliondollar deal with the tiny island state of Niue – and is said to be on the brink of signing up the tourism trophy that is the Cook Islands. The two are self-governing nations in free association with New Zealand, propped up until now by Kiwi money. Their residents are New Zealand citizens who use New Zealand currency. But Niue has signed a memorandum of understanding to join the belt-and-road initiative, by which China seeks to extend its influence around the world. The superpower has offered nearly $15 million to pay for an upgraded 64km expressway, and to renovate some wharfs. Chinese ambassador Wu Xi attended Niue’s Constitution Day celebrations two weeks ago, at which school children waved the Chinese flags while the New Zealand flag, controversially, was not raised. Wu Xi cooked dumplings for premier Sir Toke Talagi and locals, in what the embassy calls ‘‘dumpling diplomacy’’. The belt-and-road initiative (BRI) seeks to boost trade connections, with significant infrastructure investment. But critics see it as a push for dominance in global affairs with a Chinacentred trading network. The New Zealand Government fears the Cook Islands will be the next Pacific domino to fall. China has already paid the Rarotonga administration big money for pelagic tuna fisheries licences, and there is talk of Beijing funding the development of a deep-water port on Penrhyn Island. This week, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters met Cook Islands premier Henry Puna in Wellington. Peters is said to have cautioned Puna: be careful what you are getting into. There has been a long-held understanding that if the Cooks strikes out too far on its own, New Zealand might withdraw its passport. China is seeking to sign up as many nations as it can to its beltand-road-initiative, for a big announcement by President Xi Jinping at Apec in Papua New Guinea this month. Negotiations are going down to the line. The US is understood to be
concerned that China plays by the rules, and that New Zealand and other Pacific nations go into any relationship with their eyes open.
The New Zealand Government is worried at China wooing first Niue and now the Cook Islands, a source said. ‘‘China is courting a lot of friends and it is probably wanting to have a big show at the
Apec conference, to get all the Pacific nations over there showing they see no taint or fear in working with China. There’s a lot of heat on whether we’re being gamed right under our noses. We probably are.’’
Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady said New Zealand had authority for the two island nations’ foreign policy, but both were free to establish diplomatic relations
with other states.
‘‘The New Zealand Government will, however, be concerned about the implications of these two belt-and-road initiative agreements because BRI has military-strategic aspects, it is not just an economic project,’’ she said. ‘‘For example BRI partner states are being asked to host Beidou ground stations, China’s equivalent of GPS used for military and civil purposes.’’
In Niue, opposition MP Terry Coe was nervous about China’s motives.
‘‘We’ve got to be careful with what they’re wanting in return for doing these things’’ he told the Sunday Star-Times.
‘‘The Premier is certainly antiNew Zealand at the moment.’’
This year, the New Zealand government pledged $14.6 million in funding for the small nation of 1600 people.’’
Schoolgirls waved Chinese flags during Constitution Day celebrations, but the New Zealand flag was noticeably absent from the proceedings.