Old friends: Winston Peters, in his first trip as foreign affairs minister in the National-led coalition government, is welcomed by Fiji’s prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka in Suva, December 2023. (Photo: MFAT X account)

No one can doubt Winston Peter’s work ethic as foreign affairs minister. Since his appointment, he has pursued an active and engaged foreign policy for New Zealand. On his latest overseas trip, he packed in nearly 50 meetings over two weeks in Egypt, Poland, Belgium, Sweden and the US.

Closer to home, Winston has also made sure our Pacific neighbours know he’s back — and his track record as a foreign minister under both Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern saw him warmly welcomed throughout the region, despite quiet concerns about the coalition’s conduct at home.

Here, Marco de Jong talks to Teuila Fuatai about Winston, and what his third stretch as the Minister of Foreign Affairs means for the Pacific — and for New Zealand’s international standing.

 

Winston Peters’ first overseas visit in his latest stint as a foreign affairs minister was to Fiji last December. It was a reunion of sorts, with Peters welcomed by Fiji’s prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka as a man of the Pacific, and a statesman who’s well-versed in the regional way of doing politics.

In February, alongside Shane Reti, he travelled to the Cook Islands, Tonga and Sāmoa for the coalition government’s first “Pacific Mission”. The warm reception laid out for the pair was a noticeable contrast to the combative atmosphere they’d experienced at Waitangi just before their departure. Back in Wellington, he has matched his regional travel with a steady schedule of meetings with various high commissioners and Pacific leaders.

That long-standing connection to the region and its leaders is one of Peters’ strengths. He is well-regarded in Pacific political circles. His Māori whakapapa certainly helps, as does his age and gender. But beyond that, during his two previous tenures as foreign minister, Peters didn’t take his relationships with Pacific leaders for granted, and the region hasn’t forgotten.

But now, as foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister, he is navigating an increasingly volatile and fractured international environment underpinned by escalating tensions between the US and China.

And, as the leader of New Zealand First, he must also square his party’s nationalism with his international engagement. In the Pacific, this means confronting the concerns over the racist, scapegoating tactics employed during the election campaign — as well as a broader coalition agenda that appears incompatible with Pacific priorities, especially on security, immigration, and climate.

Peters has already experienced flashes of that disconnect. On the Pacific Mission trip, he was keen to talk about New Zealand’s role and contribution in Pacific development, but had to downplay suggestions from the media that he was really there to canvas Pacific opinion about New Zealand’s potential involvement in AUKUS.

Pacific leaders themselves were reluctant to explicitly criticise New Zealand’s interest in AUKUS, instead reiterating their own commitment to Blue Pacific ideals of expanded security, focused on climate action and a nuclear-free Pacific through the Treaty of Rarotonga.

It’s important to understand that silence doesn’t signal acceptance of New Zealand’s position, especially on controversial issues like AUKUS. Rather, it should be seen as the Pacific way of politics, where open and direct disagreement is rare. It’s also difficult for some Pacific nations to criticise New Zealand because it’s a significant aid donor in the region.

At some point, Peters — and the coalition government — will need to reconcile domestic politics with New Zealand’s standing in the Pacific region. That hasn’t happened yet, and recent rhetoric may make it harder.

So far, we’ve seen Peters push for New Zealand to align more closely with its “traditional partners”, which is interpreted primarily as the AUKUS nations of Australia, the UK and the US.

That idea of traditional partners is regressive, and the term itself is euphemistic and deliberately ambiguous. For example, Peters hasn’t commented on whether Pacific nations are considered to be our traditional partners. Christopher Luxon, on his tour of South East Asia, has also used language that indicates he sees New Zealand’s traditional partners as principally residing in the Anglosphere or the west.

Of course, it’s not just AUKUS that Peters is interested in. He’s also focused on the security architecture of the west, and has pushed for increasing cooperation with NATO and the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and US).He has even hinted at revisiting ANZUS.

And, as he quite rightly points out, successive governments have sought to align New Zealand more closely with the US and its allies. However, the pace at which he’s pursuing this, and the language in official briefings, suggest New Zealand’s principled and independent voice could be compromised if it has to accept some of the security prescriptions required for such alignment. Measures such as increasing military spending and interoperability are designed to advance the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.

Here, we see the stark differences raised by the AUKUS question. Simply put, Pacific opposition to AUKUS is based on the belief that its military focus and reliance on nuclear technologies go against Pacific peoples’ own conceptions of security.

Pacific nations are clear that climate change remains the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”, and that genuine security can only be achieved through climate action and people-centred development provided through Pacific-led “family first” regional architecture. They have called for a stop to the “militarisation of the Pacific” and for “a united ocean of peace”.

This vision is clearly articulated in the Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe and Biketawa Declarations and the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. And it is incompatible with AUKUS.

Enele Sopoaga, the former Tuvalu prime minister, addressed this directly when he spoke at an AUKUS symposium in Wellington this week. Sopoaga is also a member of the independent regional advocacy group Pacific Elders’ Voice.

“We did not ask for these submarines in our waters,” he said. “We don’t want them cruising by in the waters of our islands.”

Sopoaga also highlighted the detrimental nature of AUKUS for regional priorities. Imagine, he said, what the hundreds of billions of dollars required for the pact could do if they were instead committed to climate change initiatives in the Pacific region.

For New Zealand and its approach to the Pacific, that conflict between the requirements of AUKUS and the real needs of the region is fundamental.

Peters must reconcile it, or have his approach determined for him. Despite the rhetoric around our so-called traditional partners and his desire to align more closely with the US, I believe Peters also sees the need for New Zealand to engage meaningfully with Pacific nations.

He has a proven track record. Under the Ardern government, Peters led New Zealand’s refocused approach to the region through the Pacific Reset policy.

The policy leveraged New Zealand’s reputation by positioning us as a “partner” that understood Pacific issues, such as increased strategic competition, human development and economic vulnerability — rather than a “donor” simply seeking soft power. While concerns over China’s increasing influence in the region certainly featured, they were not presented as the central point.

And while the overall policy implementation was limited by budgetary constraints, it did show New Zealand’s commitment to meet Pacific needs in a way that re-established our influence in the region.

Importantly, the reset also laid the foundation for the “Pacific Resilience” framework, which focused on a layered, whole-of-government approach to meeting regional challenges like Covid recovery and climate change. Indigenous knowledge and gender equity were built into the framework, which sought to better streamline existing initiatives across different government agencies like health and immigration.

Through that framework, $1.3 billion in funding for Pacific priorities was secured by the former foreign affairs minister Nanaia Mahuta, and delivered by James Shaw as the Minister for Climate Change. It’s unclear whether that level of priority will continue under this government, and what future significant commitments to the Pacific might be.

Perhaps we’ll see a new roadmap for our regional relationships — as we did with the Pacific Reset in 2018.

Ever the Pacific statesman. Winston Peters with Alapati Tavite, the head of the Tokelau government, in Wellington in March. (Photo: MFAT X account)

Certainly, if Winston Peters wants to maintain a credible contribution to Pacific-led regionalism and leverage our standing in the region, there are a range of initiatives New Zealand could meaningfully contribute to.

First, there’s the Zone of Peace, a Fiji-led initiative that aligns with the UN New Agenda for Peace and builds on Sitiveni Rabuka’s campaign to “Let Love Shine”.

The Zone of Peace proposes that Pacific nations be equipped to meet all their own regional security needs, including humanitarian assistance, disaster response and peacekeeping. By doing this, the region will supposedly be insulated from external geopolitical forces that can interfere with internal affairs and cause instability or uncertainty. The initiative is also promoted as a way the region can exercise a degree of self-determination.

New Zealand could provide support to a Zone of Peace through funding, equipment and training initiatives.

For example, instead of relying on New Zealand and Australia to fly in a Hercules every time there’s a cyclone, a riot, or an election, under this and related initiatives, supplies would already be positioned closer to the region so they can be accessed without external assistance. The appropriate Pacific nation would also coordinate the response, not New Zealand or Australia.

However, there are also serious flaws to the Zone of Peace. Because it’s ill-defined, it opens the door for a securitised form of regional architecture that can be used by players like Australia to align the region against China. Additionally, the Zone of Peace that’s been presented for the Pacific also appears to be primarily about protecting the status quo, and has a heavy reliance on military might.

In that vein, it fails to provide any real framework for addressing a range of underlying causes of instability in the region — like climate change, wealth and gender inequality, and ongoing independence and self-determination struggles. For example, how does a Zone of Peace attend to those still fighting for independence in West Papua, Mā’ohi Nui and Kanaky? How does it achieve justice for those affected by nuclear testing? It also doesn’t provide a clear path to demilitarisation of the Pacific as a region.

Second, there’s the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, an initiative spearheaded by Vanuatu and the Melanesian Spearhead Group. This treaty is a continuation of the climate advocacy of Vanuatu and other Small Island States, which are also seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of states to address climate change. They see the treaty as a regional adoption of the message behind that legal fight.

Here at home, the coalition government has on multiple occasions found its own domestic environmental agenda at great odds with the region.

At the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Rarotonga last November, Vanuatu’s Ralph Regenvanu criticised the New Zealand government’s interest in renewing offshore oil and gas exploration, saying it was unscientific and incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. A month later, at the COP 28 climate conference in Dubai, Palau’s Surangel Whipps Jr also spoke out, calling the renewed interest in exploration a “backward position”.

That public criticism reflects the keen interest from Pacific nations for the New Zealand government to stay the course on its nationally-determined commitments under the Paris Agreement and its advocacy within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It’s also no secret that the coalition government harbours people like David Seymour who has called on New Zealand to do as little as possible — a disappointing reversal of New Zealand’s previously more ambitious climate policy.

Without getting too into the weeds on greenwashing, and even if this government contains climate deniers, I believe it’s in New Zealand’s interests to support Pacific environmental aspirations over the longer term, and a fossil-fuel-free Pacific as a key development contribution in the region.

For example, a recent study has shown that it would require only a modest amount of money to fully electrify all of the Pacific’s small watercraft. Through its own development contributions, New Zealand could be at the forefront of transformational change. Pacific leaders would be able to stand up internationally and point to the successful transition in their own nations, strengthening their moral case further.

And while this stance certainly doesn’t offset the government’s own domestic environmental agenda, it would likely strengthen New Zealand’s credibility on the world stage and promote the Pacific voice internationally.

Third, New Zealand could support the revitalisation of the Treaty of Rarotonga.

At the height of the Cold War, the Pacific came together and created a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the South Pacific. The 1985 treaty was a remarkable piece of Pacific diplomacy. It was signed by Pacific nations as well as five nuclear weapons states: the US, France, China, Russia and the UK.

Since then, there’s been widespread acknowledgment of the need to update the Rarotonga Treaty so it better aligns with today’s military environment.

The language in the treaty could be reviewed so that some of the ambiguous wording around the stationing of nuclear-capable platforms is clarified and any loopholes are closed. It could also be extended to include all members of the Pacific Islands Forum, including the US compact states of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The position of the US itself must also be addressed: the US has never ratified the treaty protocols despite promising to do so over the years.

In supporting the updating of the Treaty of Rarotonga, New Zealand could also be involved in setting parameters around its enforcement. Notably, this would bring the question of AUKUS directly into play.

For example, part of the interoperability involved in AUKUS involves the rotation of nuclear-capable submarines and bombers on Australian territory. Updating the Rarotonga Treaty would require a look at whether Australia could continue to meet its obligations under AUKUS.

Winston Peters is well-regarded in the Pacific. Here he’s pictured in Suva, Fiji, on his first overseas trip as foreign minister for the current government, in December 2023. (Photo: MFAT X account).

Fourth, there’s the issue of visa-free travel throughout the Pacific, a policy setting that New Zealand has been repeatedly pressed on over the years.

In the context of climate and developmental challenges, long-running discussions over the potential for deepening economic relations in the region, and for a Pacific economic community, have reignited. Tied to that is open access to New Zealand. People keen to invest and do business across the region need visa-free mobility.

Addressing the lack of visa-free access to New Zealand would affirm our place alongside our Pacific whanaunga and address the prejudicial nature of the current visa setting. The mobility it would afford is more consistent historically with how the Pacific as a region functioned, and was conceived of by Pacific peoples, before colonial partition.

Peters was quick to refuse the suggestion that he might support Pacific immigration reform while in Suva last December, but he will be asked again.

I can’t say often enough how significant the Pacific region and its people are to New Zealand’s international standing.

When New Zealand restated its commitment to the Pacific region, and put in place the Pacific Reset followed by the Pacific Resilience framework, it showed the international community a different kind of diplomacy.

Other nations saw New Zealand’s lead, fronted first by Winston Peters and then Nanaia Mahuta, as best practice. They emulated its language and copied some of its models.

Right now, AUKUS poses a generational foreign policy decision that will largely determine New Zealand’s approach to the Pacific in future.

As I see it, there are two paths. We could embrace our Pacific identity and address the root causes of regional instability by making a credible contribution to climate action, development and disarmament. Or we could fall the way of Australia, which has retreated into the Anglosphere, prioritising its own military power through AUKUS — much to the disappointment, and detriment, of Pacific nations.

For New Zealand, any one of the initiatives outlined above could be the headline policy of a new Pacific Reset. Done well, it could be the beginning of an ambitious new era in New Zealand foreign policy. “Pacific Reciprocity” maybe.

And Winston Peters, with all his contradictions but ever the Pacific statesman, would be well-placed to do it.

 

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

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.