New Zealand and allies allowed ‘vacuum’ to develop in Pacific, former foreign minister says


New Zealand and its allies have failed to listen to “alarm bells” about China’s growing influence, and allowed a “vacuum” to develop in the Pacific, New Zealand’s former foreign minister Winston Peters has said.

His comments come amid news that China hopes 10 Pacific countries will sign a wide-ranging draft deal covering security, trade and investment. The agreement would dramatically increase China’s influence in the region.

Peters, who was foreign minister and deputy prime minister in Jacinda Ardern’s first term of government, said the draft was a “challenge to the very concepts of working together, which we have been engaged in for the last 22 years”.

He said New Zealand and its allies had allowed a power vacuum to develop. “What is happening is in the situation of a vacuum – which I daresay likeminded nations were warned about a long time ago – you have the automatic consequence of a void being filled, where there should never have been one,” he said.

Those concerns have been echoed by a senior Pacific diplomat, who told the Guardian some leaders had “big concerns” about the deal but “there has been a vacuum left in this region from traditional partners. They have to work extra hard to win back the hearts of Pacific people.”

Ardern, who is currently visiting the U.S, has confirmed she will meet with the president, Joe Biden, on Tuesday to discuss a range of issues, including the balance of power in the Pacific.

“There are an a number of areas in which the United States and New Zealand have very similar views, a number of areas where we would wish to see their presence continue or increase,” the prime minister said.

“I imagine we will discuss our region and the fact that it is becoming increasingly contested and the role of the United States in our regional economy is important.”

Peters said New Zealand and its allies had ignored longstanding warnings of a power, investment and relationship vacuum in the region. “A lot of us who were sounding the alarm bells have clearly not been listened to. It has to be hoped that those who are making the decisions now finally realise … their lack of preparedness, their lack of understanding,” he said.

Peters spent a number of years arguing New Zealand should be investing more in the Pacific, and not take its position for granted. In 2018, in Ardern’s first term, he launched the “Pacific Reset” – a strategy of increased aid and diplomatic visits to cultivate and re-energise relationships in the region.

He said at the time: “It has become increasingly obvious that the perception of New Zealand by Pacific leaders is changing … They are more comfortable in courting a range of external partners.”

Peters says the level of investment and engagement by the current government had been insufficient.

“Our approach is to invest in the economic and social futures of the island nations and an attempt to provide the fundamentals like incomes, housing, health and education. And we needed far more of that.”

The opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, said the New Zealand foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, should be booking trips on the tail of her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who is now on a marathon tour of the region. “The foreign minister [should] at least be on the footsteps of the Chinese foreign minister, visiting all of those countries very, very quickly, to put a counter case to the proposal,” he said.

Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, travelled to Fiji on Thursday in an effort to deepen the relationship with Pacific countries.

“There’s a lot at stake here, a lot,” Brownlee said. He said increased Chinese influence over the region via such a pact was not only an issue of security. “When it comes to China, it’s more the economic dominance, the cultural dominance and the erosion of the sort of freedoms that we all like to live up to that would be of greatest concern.”

Brownlee said it appeared New Zealand had been blindsided by the proposed agreement, just as it had been weeks earlier by the Solomon Islands pact.

Mahuta’s office had not responded to requests for an interview or comment.