New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says she takes a “country-agnostic” view to the militarisation of the Pacific amid reports that the United States is on the brink of signing a security agreement with Papua New Guinea.
It’s unclear how any pact would be affected by U.S President Joe Biden cancelling his trip to PNG, which was scheduled for early next week. The White House said the United States is wanting to find other ways to engage with PNG and other Pacific Island leaders.
PNG Prime Minister James Marape has reportedly confirmed two security agreements was expected to signed between it and the United States, on defence cooperation and maritime surveillance.
The issue of militarisation in the region blew up last year when China and the Solomon Islands signed a security pact. New Zealand expressed our concerns about that, warning it had the “potential to destabilise the Pacific region’s security”.
Asked on Wednesday if she had any concerns about a U.S-PNG deal, Mahuta said PNG would make its decisions based on its “sovereign assessments”.
“I think we are a long way away from any announcement right now. That’s a matter for Papua New Guinea,” she said.
“There is a regional element to it. There has been speculation in the media about what may or may not be achieved as a result of the meeting between the US and Papua New Guinea, but I am yet to receive anything that has made me materially reconsider that the ground has shifted significantly.”
Mahuta said her view was “country-agnostic”.
“I think the [Pacific Islands Forum] have highlighted that the Boe Declaration, which reaffirms our commitment to regional security issues, is something to be upheld. I am sure that Pacific partners as they make their various determinations about their security interest will keep that in mind.”
She was reluctant to make any comment “based on either media speculation or reckons”
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday afternoon didn’t have an update on whether he would still travel to PNG next week as he had intended prior to Biden pulling out.
“We will endeavour to confirm our plans based on the latest information. We are still waiting to hear who is going to go in his place. We haven’t made final decisions.”
Mahuta earlier this month said the Pacific “can provide for its own security” as set out by the Biketawa Declaration, which provides a framework for PIF countries to respond to regional crises.
“We are committed to ensuring there are no gaps, and no need to look outside our region in ways that could destabilise the arrangements that have served us so well, for so long,” she said.
“On this, the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders reiterated in their joint statement last year that the region should take a ‘family first’ approach to regional security. Ostensibly this focus to regional security is as much about the Pacific asserting its voice on the Pacific way and regional sovereignty.”
As news broke last April that the Solomons and China may sign a security deal, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there was “no need” for such an agreement.
“We are concerned about the militarisation of the Pacific and we continue to call on the Solomons to work with the Pacific with any concerns around their security that they may have.”
Ardern said the Pacific Islands Forum, of which both New Zealand and the Solomon Islands are members, has the Biketawa Declaration, a framework for coordinating responses to regional security needs.
“It only reinforces for us the long-held view by New Zealand in our foreign policy that we must maintain strong relationships in our region. But we must maintain those strong relationships within our Pacific region,” Ardern said.
“We have been a part of conversations with the Pacific Island Forum where increasingly you do see the desire of the forum for us to work collaboratively, for us to respond to our own needs within the region.”
The United States has taken a number of steps over the past year to show greater interest in the Pacific in reaction to China’s push for influence. That includes opening a new embassy in Tonga.