New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has urged China to be transparent as it sends a high-level delegation through the “contested” Pacific.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is leading a tour through the region from Thursday, beginning with the hotspot Solomon Islands, which recently signed a security tie-up with Beijing.
The Australian and New Zealand governments sounded the alarm on that deal, with Ardern saying in March she was “gravely concerned” it could lead to a rise in militarisation.
Speaking from New York City on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT), where she is promoting New Zealand’s post-pandemic reopening, Ardern said it was natural China would be engaged in the “contested region”.
She urged China to be upfront with its engagement and what it is seeking to achieve.
“I don’t think (the Chinese delegation’s tour) is necessarily a surprise,” she said.
“We’ve seen recently the United States seeking to engage with the Pacific. It is a contested region.
“We will be consistent, regardless of who is in our region and engaging with the members of it.
“Values of transparency, openness and peace and stability … is what we are advocates for.”
New Zealand believes the Solomon Islands has broken an agreement among Pacific Islands – the Biketawa Declaration – in agreeing the Chinese security deal.
In 2000 on the Kiribati islet of Biketawa, members of the Pacific Islands Forum agreed to look to each other, including Australia and New Zealand, for regional security.
“What we will question is whether or not some of those arrangements are even necessary,” Ardern said.
“We had those existing partnerships that New Zealand and Australia have offered and they remain and we will keep them on the table.
“Our question will continue to be ‘are some of those engagements necessary given we are present and we are ready to support?’.”
Like Australia, New Zealand seeks to balance important trade and geopolitical relationships with China and the United States, which both seek to grow influence in the Pacific.
Ardern said interest and investment in Pacific from the superpowers is welcome, but drew the line at militarisation in the underdeveloped region, where other needs are more pressing.
“We want collaboration in areas where we have shared concerns (on) issues like climate adaptation and mitigation,” she said.
“We want quality investment and infrastructure in our region.
“We don’t want militarisation. We don’t want an escalation of tension, we want peace and stability. We will remain firm on those values.”
China’s Foreign Ministry says the Pacific tour will be “pursuing common development on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit”.
After the Solomon Islands, the delegation will visit Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.
In Fiji, he will host the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, following an inaugural virtual session last year.
Wang will also hold virtual meetings with leaders of the Cook Islands and Niue – two countries which fall under New Zealand’s umbrella – and Micronesia..