Winston Peters and Shane Reti in Rarotonga, during their four-day tour of the Pacific. (Photo: NZ High Commission, Cook Islands)

This week, foreign affairs minister Winston Peters and health minister Shane Reti visited Tonga, the Cook Islands and Sāmoa. According to the new government, the four-day trip was about “reaffirming the importance of New Zealand’s connections to the Pacific”.

It was Winston’s second trip to the region since the coalition formed. In December, he flew to Fiji for 24 hours where he met with Pacific leaders, including Fijian prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, Tuvaluan prime minister Kausea Natano, and Henry Puna, the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Here, Marco de Jong speaks to Teuila Fuatai about the new government’s engagement in the Pacific region so far — and what it signals for regional relationships.

 

We’ve seen a lot of positive vibes from Winston Peters and Shane Reti’s Pacific Mission trip.

The pair kicked off the tour by opening Tonga’s new pharmaceutical warehouse in Nuku’alofa, funded in part by a $2.4 million contribution from New Zealand. In the Cook Islands, Winston Peters announced $16.5 million in new funding for climate change initiatives for the country. Then, in Sāmoa — the pair’s final stop — Peters and Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa signed a renewed Statement of Partnership outlining key areas of bilateral cooperation like climate change, human and economic development, and regional security.

Peters also laid out health funding spread over five years: $3.5 million for health scholarships in Sāmoa and a further $30 million for improving health systems across the region.

At a glance, these are positive signs that New Zealand, and Peters as foreign minister, are aware of, and invested in, issues facing our regional neighbours.

More than ever, Pacific Island nations are struggling with the impacts of climate change. Wealth inequality and the cost of living remain significant issues. Pathways to economic development and independence continue to be difficult, particularly post-Covid. Issues of self-determination in parts of the region are ongoing, and political instability continues to cause problems.

But behind all of this is the ongoing and escalating political competition between China and the US. Like the rest of the world, Pacific nations, including New Zealand, are under pressure to choose a side.

Right now, as far as I can tell, that pressure is playing a major part in the new government’s foreign policy approach. In the Pacific, it will likely have serious implications for New Zealand’s engagement that are far more significant and wide-ranging than any of the announcements and proclamations of commitment and friendship we’ve seen this week.

A key starting point is Peter’s first official address as foreign minister in November last year at the the US Business Summit in Auckland. Peters talked about a Pacific step-up from the US, highlighting the US’s renewed interest and investment in the region. Without missing a beat, he also tied New Zealand’s role in the Pacific to US interests.

“As a small democracy with deep relationships across the region, and focused on regional security and prosperity, New Zealand has a crucial role to play in promoting shared values in our part of the world and in growing economic opportunity and performance,” Peters said.

He also made specific reference to the importance of the US to the Pacific’s success.

Much of what we’ve seen in the past few months from the new government reflects this foreign policy direction. New Zealand’s support of US and UK airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen is the clearest example of that.

The government framed the decision to deploy defence personnel to Yemen as a natural progression of its statements condemning the Houthis’ actions. It also highlighted the importance of freedom of trade and navigation for New Zealand, emphasising our reliance on exports as a small island nation.

This simply isn’t the full picture. Our involvement in Yemen is about international relationships and the way those relationships play out much closer to home. New Zealand’s deployment decision signals our alignment with the US, and the UK.

Peters, in particular, has used clear language to emphasise the importance of New Zealand’s relationship with the US. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has been less explicit, but he still frames our support of US interests as a way of aligning New Zealand with “like-minded partners” on the world stage.

Let’s be clear. New Zealand’s involvement in Yemen sends a clear message that we support the US and its strategic priorities. In the Pacific, it indicates that we support the US vision for the region, which is articulated in its Indo-Pacific strategy. It’s also a clear sign that we’re seriously considering a role as a junior partner in AUKUS, the nuclear submarine military pact between Australia, the UK and the US.

So there’s a bigger story at play here about the way New Zealand is seeking to orientate itself in the Pacific — one which we see play out over and over again during times of superpower competition and great-power rivalry.

Winston Peters and Samoa’s prime minister Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa signed a renewed Statement of Partnership this week in Apia, Sāmoa. (Photo: NZ High Commission, Sāmoa)

History shows New Zealand has continually prioritised its allegiance with the western alliance led by the US and UK, over and beyond the interests of fellow Pacific countries and people. It’s a culture and tradition driven by the beliefs among our top foreign affairs officials that New Zealand’s interests are best served under US hegemony.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing from December makes that very clear. The ministerial briefing, titled Our US Relationship, makes numerous references to a strong and prosperous US being in the best interests of New Zealand’s security.  It concludes that New Zealand benefits disproportionately from the US relationship, and lists the security and trade advantages for New Zealand “given huge disparities in size, GDP and international influence”. Notably, the briefing states outright that the US “is our most significant defence and security partner, after Australia”, with our shared interest resting on the ability of the US to maintain global influence and efficacy.

“Via our Five Eyes members,” the briefing continues, “New Zealand is deeply integrated with US security and intelligence.”

Outside of redactions in the document, no mention is made of the political instability in the Pacific region linked to the ongoing and escalating geopolitical tension between the US and China, nor what that means for New Zealand’s interests and regional relationships. Similarly, there’s no reference to increasing militarisation in the region, which is also linked to the US-China geopolitical rivalry.

I don’t think we should kid ourselves. A large segment of the foreign policy community here continues to see New Zealand as part of a western alliance. In their eyes, the Pacific region is where New Zealand can leverage power to serve its interests.

That’s a mindset rooted in a colonial view of New Zealand. In that view, our allegiance with the US comes from being a like-minded democracy, with a neoliberal economy, where New Zealand’s interests are best served by a unipolar world in which a single power (specifically, the US) dominates global affairs.

That view is outdated. The unipolar world is fast disappearing. The US is in absolute internal crisis, and is lashing out and distracting itself with misadventure overseas.

Right now, the clearest example of that is its support for Israel. The vast majority of the international community supports an immediate ceasefire to stop what is plausibly a genocide. Yet, the US is advancing more military aid and facilitating Israel’s impunity on the world stage. When other nations or non-state actors in the Middle East have found this intolerable, and have sought to act, the US has bombed them.

The basic legal fact is there is no support for the strikes in Yemen, and the US is flouting the very international rules-based order it’s supposedly seeking to uphold. Their actions are about power, using might over what is right, and that’s what our new government has chosen to support. We should be mindful that we’re tying ourselves to an ailing tyrant.

Where’s the respect for territorial sovereignty when it’s not convenient? What does that say about respect for an “international rules-based order”? What does it mean for us?

In the Pacific, if we do go ahead and sign on to participate in AUKUS Pillar II, and follow through on rhetoric that “we will pull our weight” on behalf of the western alliance (in particular, the US), then it must be made clear that this will harm New Zealand’s standing and relationships, no matter how many of the right noises Winston Peters makes on his trips to the islands.

Under both AUKUS Pillar II, and the New Zealand Defence Force’s new Future Force Design Principles, there’s an emphasis on moving New Zealand from having a dual-purpose, civilian-use and low-technology armed force, to a high-tech, interoperable and combat-ready force. It’s proposed that we invest in equipment like autonomous weapon systems and hypersonic missiles. These are all part of dehumanising post-modern warfare which creates a destabilising but highly lucrative next-generation arms race.

Shifting New Zealand’s military spending and focus to meet this vision for our defence force indicates that we’re prioritising being AUKUS-interoperable over our ability to provide fit-for-purpose assistance in the region. It’s a path that contradicts the spirit of the Boe and Biketawa Declarations, which outline a vision of regional peace-building and climate security that all Pacific Islands Forum members, including New Zealand, have agreed to.

It also disregards the fact that Pacific nations have identified climate change as their biggest challenge. We only need to look across the ditch to see how belligerence undermines regional priorities and real climate security work. Most of Australia’s aid to the Pacific is now funnelled towards military initiatives and its own seasonal labour programmes.

In aligning ourselves with this foreign policy approach, we need to ask ourselves about our motivations for preparing for war and whose conflicts we’ll be fighting in.

When you break it down, the US outlook for the Pacific is bleak. It splits the world into two hemispheres, or two theatres, of strategic competition: the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic. The US wants to maintain military primacy across both of those hemispheres. Its Indo-Pacific strategy specifically targets the Pacific region.

The cornerstone of this strategy is what’s known as “integrated deterrence” — a foreign policy approach that seeks to leverage all aspects of international relations and power to counter China. It views interactions across a “spectrum of conflict”, ranging from trade disputes or diplomatic disagreements, through to proxy wars. Nuclear war is at the most extreme end of the spectrum.

I see integrated deterrence as a total-war approach to strategic competition because, even in “peacetime”, it seeks to leverage diplomatic relationships and develop disruptive technology to maintain US primacy.

I think we’re returning to the worldview articulated in a 1981 ANZUS Council briefing, which stated quite plainly that New Zealand’s strategic interest in the Pacific region was to improve standards of living in the Pacific to foster political stability and therefore uphold the priorities of a western alliance rooted in US interests. No other priorities or alternative views of New Zealand’s role as a Pacific nation were offered. There was no room for Pacific self-determination.

Disappointingly, it looks as if this bit-part is still the only role our foreign affairs’ officials are able to envisage for us.

Winston Peters at the Waitangi Day garden reception at Ngātipā, the official residence of the New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands in Rarotonga. (Photo: New Zealand High Commission, Cook Islands)

Pacific nations themselves can see the step-change in the way New Zealand is conducting its foreign policy. The shift away from an independent, nuclear-free and Pacific-led foreign policy towards the adoption of a US-led Indo-Pacific strategy is clear. Our actions in Yemen confirm it.

As New Zealanders, we should be asking ourselves if this is really where our resources and beliefs are best placed. Does a total war approach to the Pacific region truly prioritise what we’ve signed up to through the Blue Pacific strategy? Does it prioritise human development and climate action?

More than that, New Zealand should think very carefully about our real value to AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific strategy. For the AUKUS nations, New Zealand is a convenient addition. Our membership isn’t required to secure the alliance’s core interests in the region.

I believe the AUKUS nations want New Zealand for our brand and territory. As a nuclear-free nation, New Zealand gives credence to the non-proliferation claims of AUKUS. These claims have been widely criticised for exploiting loopholes in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty of Rarotonga. As a Pacific nation, we might also help quell opposition to AUKUS in the region, and facilitate access to the territories of our realm countries (the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau) to strategically deny China.

For New Zealand, however, there’s a very real trade-off and reputational risk to consider here. AUKUS membership would likely require a significant increase in our military spending, which is currently about $6.5 billion a year. Notably, increases in military spending often correlate to reductions in overseas aid money. This would directly affect our relationships with Pacific nations which receive most of our aid.

And while this would win favour with the western alliance countries, we’d be selling out our family. Make no mistake — this approach undermines Pacific-led regionalism and erodes Aotearoa’s principal difference from major polluters and military powers.

Ultimately, we’d be compromised and lose any moral authority to speak on issues of peace and climate action. This would damage our standing in the region, and by extension, the world.

New Zealand has many options to behave differently and leverage our interpersonal ties and Indigenous connections within our Pacific region and moana. We could present a different way of doing diplomacy and politics in the region — one which funds influence but not dominance, and supports human development and climate action by focusing on good governance and specific priorities around areas like health and education.

Should New Zealand choose to do things differently, it would be a significant challenge to the western alliance. In my view, we’d also become more powerful in our own region.

 

Dr Marco de Jong is a Pacific historian at the Auckland University of Technology. Last year, he completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Islands with a particular focus on anti-nuclearism and climate change. He is also a co-director of Te Kuaka, an independent group promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world.

 As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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