New Zealand is hopeful the Pacific’s reticence to sign a wide-ranging trade and security alignment with China this week could lead to a reversion of in-house regionalism.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is currently touring the blue continent, signing off on a contentious security tie-up with the Solomon Islands and inking fresh economic-based deals with Kiribati and Samoa.
The centrepiece of Wang’s tour was the China-Pacific foreign ministers meeting in Fiji on Monday, when China hoped to receive agreement on a sweeping regional deal.
However, no such support was forthcoming.
Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama said the Pacific was “putting consensus first” – suggesting division along Pacific nations about linking with China – while reminding reporters of the most important issue facing the region.
“Geopolitical point-scoring means less than little to anyone whose community is slipping beneath the rising seas, whose job is being lost to the pandemic or whose family is impacted by the rapid rise in the price of commodities,” he said.
In Wellington – like Canberra – relief at the Pacific’s rejection of the regional agreement was clear.
China’s interest in the Pacific has surfaced the issue to a top-line political concern in both Australia and New Zealand.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern nominated the matter as “top of mind” for a White House discussion with Joe Biden to take place on Wednesday.
In March, Ardern called China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands “gravely concerning”, while earlier this month Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta labelled it “unwelcome and unnecessary”.
Speaking on Tuesday, Mahuta said the issues at play would now be taken up at the next Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders meeting, due within weeks.
“There is a sentiment to discuss issues relating to regional security (and) regional sovereignty at the Pacific Island Forum. That space is now very evident and able to be responded to at the PIF,” Mahuta said.
New Zealand has consistently argued for this outcome, citing the Biketawa Declaration signed in 2000 that Pacific nations will look to each other – including Australia and New Zealand – for its security, rather than outside powers.
“It’s been my position and it’s been informed by a broad range of conversations across Pacific nations with leaders around how we address these types of issues,” Mahuta said.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Ardern are likely attendees at PIF, to be hosted by Fiji.
While PIF is not without its own issues – including a potential splinter of Micronesian nations – Mahuta said China’s engagement may prompt their re-engagement around the table.
“Often when you have significant regional issues such as this, it may well focus the minds of all Pacific nations to discuss it,” she said.
Wang’s tour continues, arriving in Tonga on Tuesday for a two-day visit, with stops in Vanuatu, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea to come.