Hamish Rutherford: China is taking the Pacific
Peters’ message does not appear to have deterred Beijing.
Since becoming Foreign Minister, Winston Peters has been actively warning about the growing risks to New Zealand’s influence – and neighbours – in the Pacific.
In interviews and speeches the Deputy Prime Minister has raised soft loans offered by China for infrastructure projects and the impact on our neighbours.
Although the debts may seem manageable and the projects are often badly needed, the economies which would repay the debts are small, and exist in the ongoing threat of cyclone.
‘‘Eyes wide open,’’ Peters urges officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but the message applies to smaller Pacific nations.
Tread carefully, because when the debts need to be repaid, there is no calling New Zealand for help.
International observers have warned that the loans being offered by China often carry a lack of transparency around the specific terms, making it impossible to assess whether small nations are the victims of what has been coined ‘‘debt-trap diplomacy’’.
Peters’ message does not appear to have deterred Beijing, which in recent months has taken steps which could arguably cross a diplomatic line, by reaching into New Zealand’s ‘‘realm’’, when it signed up Niue to its Belt and Road Initiative, with talks with the Cook Islands said to be under way.
Although Niue and the Cook Islands have a large degree of autonomy, citizens in each country carry Kiwi passports and New Zealand tends to take the lead on foreign policy matters, or at least it has.
Should either economy become overburdened with debt, it may be difficult for New Zealand to refuse a request for help.
Is the Government concerned? Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pointed to the existing diplomatic relations Niue and the Cook Islands have with China, telling RNZ’s Kim Hill that both had ‘‘independent relationships’’.
Ardern added that the best thing for New Zealand to do was to focus on its own relationships in the Pacific, rather than anyone else’s.
This is absolutely correct. But it appears that New Zealand is learning of the developments, including possible infrastructure projects, as they play out, from diplomats on the ground in the Pacific, rather than directly.
Given the significant diplomatic resource between the two countries, it would be easy to interpret being left out of the loop as something of a snub.
In the face of headlines that New Zealand had been blindsided, Peters has not found the time to discuss the developments this week.
The Chinese embassy in Wellington expressed surprise at the story, insisting that ‘‘China and New Zealand have been maintaining regular contacts on issues relating to Pacific island countries’’. But requests for an interview have gone unanswered.
The push to maintain influence in the Pacific was part of the reason that foreign affairs was given a significant cash injection in May’s Budget.
This will be on show as Peters and Ardern head next week to Papua New Guinea for Apec.
As well as a series of bilateral meetings with leaders from around the region, it will showcase that New Zealand is among a group of countries which has spent generously, ranging from security to training diplomats to improving a major produce market in the capital.
It is not the only example of New Zealand spending to build influence.
On Thursday, Peters announced a $10 million fund for the Pacific to support everything from sporting ties to military cooperation, as part of the Government’s ‘‘rebuilding [of] New Zealand’s standing in the Pacific’’.
Like many other ministers, Peters has cast the increased diplomatic spending as a rebuilding effort after lack of investment from the previous National Government.
But with China getting closer, and our closest neighbours often in critical need of support, opening the chequebook to build relationships may be more effective than warning neighbours to be wary of accepting help.
Winston Peters has announced a $10 million fund for the Pacific at a time of unease at China’s growing profile.