Play­ing catch-up

Hamish Rutherford: China is taking the Pa­cific

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS - Hamish Rutherford hamish.rutherford@stuff.co.nz

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.

ROSS GIB­LIN/ STUFF

Win­ston Peters has an­nounced a $10 mil­lion fund for the Pa­cific at a time of un­ease at China’s grow­ing pro­file.

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