The Japan Times

New Zealand finds its voice on security

Shift follows security pact between China and Solomon Islands

- LUCY CRAYMER WELLINGTON

New Zealand has long been seen as the moderate, even absent, voice on China in the “Five Eyes” western alliance, so much so that its commitment to the group was questioned just 12 months ago.

The recent signing of a security pact between China and the nearby Solomon Islands appears to have changed that.

New Zealand’s tone on both security and Beijing’s growing presence in the South Pacific has toughened, a shift analysts say reflects concerns the agreement will give Beijing a strategic foothold and potentiall­y a military presence in the Pacific that could destabiliz­e Western influence.

“It’s a real challenge to New Zealand’s sense of where the Pacific is heading,” said Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the pact as “gravely concerning” and called on the Solomon Islands to discuss it within the Pacific Islands Forum.

“What is really changing around us is the level of assertiven­ess and aggression we see in the region,” Ardern said later at a United States-New Zealand Business Summit.

New Zealand has previously often shied away from such criticisms, which analysts put down to the country’s heavy trade reliance and close economic relationsh­ip with China.

Both China and the Solomon Islands have said the new pact will not undermine peace in the region. Details of the final agreement have not been released, but Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the agreement called for China to help the Solomon Islands maintain social order and cope with natural disasters, and did not pose a risk to the United States.

Soft power

Statements by Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta were a clear signal they shared U.S. and Australian concerns about Chinese security engagement in the Pacific, said Anna Powles from the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.

“It also sent a signal to the Pacific that New Zealand supported regional collective security initiative­s, and to third parties, specifical­ly China, that regional crises in the Pacific would be managed by the region,” she said.

While small and with limited military capabiliti­es, New Zealand’s soft power in the Pacific is arguably stronger than its allies. It has a large Pacific Islander population and strong family, business, sporting and cultural ties along with territorie­s in the region.

New Zealand sees itself as a Pacific country and wants stability and prosperity for its neighbors, and needs a free and open IndoPacifi­c to protect trade and telecommun­ication connection­s.

David Vaeafe, program manager at nongovernm­ental organizati­on Pacific Cooperatio­n Foundation, said the relationsh­ip with the Pacific was not all about money but about listening and understand­ing what the region needs.

“New Zealand’s foreign policy towards the Pacific is slowly evolving and engaging from being ‘you shouldn’t do this’ to consulting and being part of that process,” he said.

Five Eyes criticisms

A year ago, there were questions over Wellington’s commitment to the Five Eyes alliance with Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States, after Mahuta said Wellington was uncomforta­ble with expanding the role of the group.

There had been criticism after New Zealand opted not to sign joint statements from other Five Eyes members, including one on Hong Kong and another on the origins of COVID-19.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinato­r Kurt Campbell told a business summit earlier this month that New Zealand’s underestim­ation of security risks in the past appeared unlikely to be an issue.

“I think there is an understand­ing that the challenges that are presenting themselves on the global stage are not so distant — they’re closer and they have direct implicatio­ns,” he said.

Already New Zealand and Japan have announced plans to increase security ties, and other moves are afoot. Mahuta visited Fiji at the end of March and signed an agreement that among things will facilitate informatio­n on shared security challenges.

At the start of the month, a partly New Zealand-backed tuna processing plant for the Solomon Islands that is set to create more than 5,500 jobs was announced.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has quietly shuffled more money into the Pacific developmen­t cooperatio­n budget for 2021 to 2024, according to changes made on its website. The fund has been increased since December by nearly 120 million New Zealand dollars ($75 million) to NZ$1.55 billion.

New Zealand’s budget on Thursday will likely give further detail on Pacific spending, with New Zealand’s defense minister previously highlighti­ng the region as a priority.

“New Zealand is quite strongly aligned to the United States and Australia,” Ayson said. “That doesn’t mean we always see eye-toeye and it doesn’t mean the we’re as closely aligned as Australia, but New Zealand’s security alliance is quite strong.”

 ?? POOL / VIA REUTERS ?? New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described a pact between the Solomon Islands and China as “gravely concerning.”
POOL / VIA REUTERS New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described a pact between the Solomon Islands and China as “gravely concerning.”
 ?? BLOOMBERG ?? New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Tokyo in April
BLOOMBERG New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Tokyo in April

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