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.

Sunday Star-Times - - FRONT PAGE -

‘‘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.

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