New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says his visit to Polynesia is not part of efforts to ease reservations about New Zealand joining the non-nuclear pillar of Aukus.

Peters – also deputy prime minister – and Health Minister Dr Shane Reti are starting the second of a four-day tour of Tonga, Cook Islands and Samoa. It is Peters’ second visit to the Pacific since being sworn in as foreign minister.

On Wednesday the pair opened a new pharmacy warehouse in central Tonga, built with $2.4 million (US$1.2 million), funding approved in 2021 as part of the Covid-19 response by the former Labour government.

Earlier that morning he meet with Tongan Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu, who reaffirmed the two nation’s longstanding ties, and asked Wellington for support to build a court house.

Speaking to media later that day, Peters bristled when asked whether the trip was an attempt to soften the position of some Pacific leaders about New Zealand joining the pillar two of Aukus, a defence partnership.

Former Pacific leaders in April raised concerns defence was overpowering the existential threat of climate change, and said the Aukus pact was “triggering an arms race”.

But Peters said the discussions haven’t moved on since former defence minister, Andrew Little, last March revealed the country was exploring an invitation from the US to join pillar two of the pact.

“Do you recall when it was signed up to what was the position? Well, first of all, Hipkins said he was wanting to look at it and then the Minister for Defence, Andrew Little, said he thought there was some serious possibilities in that [joining pillar two]. And that’s exactly where we are right, here right now, looking at it just 10 weeks on, and it’s far too early to say,” Peters said.

It comes after Australian defence minister, Richard Marles, said an Australian delegation would travel to New Zealand to brief officials on the second pillar of the Aukus pact “very shortly”.
He made the announcement when Peters, and Defence Minister Judith Collins, visited Melbourne and their Australian counterparts last Thursday for the first “2+2” meeting.

Last April, the Pacific Elders’ Voice, which includes former leaders of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Palau, condemned the Aukus pact between Australia, U.S and the UK. In a statement, they said it signals greater militarisation by joining Australia to the networks of U.S military bases in the northern Pacific “and is triggering an arms race, bringing war much closer to home”. As well as this, it shows a “complete lack of recognition” for the security threat posed by climate change.

“The staggering $368 billion (US$224 million) allocated for the Aukus deal also flies in the face of Pacific Island countries which have been crying out for support for climate change”.

However, Peters, speaking in Tonga, blamed the media for negative sentiment towards Aukus.

On Thursday morning, Peters will meet with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown for a ground breaking ceremony for a new farmers’ market, before holding a bilateral meeting.

In the afternoon, he will meet with the Cook Island’s Opposition leader, Tina Browne, before flying to Samoa for the final leg of the mission.