Yesterday in an unusual move, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters announced the budget for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – something that normally comes out in the Fiscal Budget, which is due on 18 May 2018.
After nine years of declining government aid for the South Pacific due to “cost cutting”, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has acknowledged that the region most important to New Zealand has been undervalued. $1 billion has been allocated in the new budget, which places emphasis on the South Pacific as our primary region of influence also enables the reopening of the New Zealand Embassy in Sweden, which shut in 2012 by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully.
I welcome the increased investment. New Zealand is faced with a range of challenges in the South Pacific, ranging from an increasingly absentee Australia, to the expansionist attitude of China and the recovery of several countries from major natural disasters in recent years – Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Fiji from cyclones and Papua New Guinea from a magnitude 7.5 earthquake there earlier this year. These small countries, however minor we might consider their contribution are after all our neighbours.
Their economies are small and they are vulnerable to numerous outside challenges as well as environmental threats. The external challenges include the spread of foreign influences as China and the United States square off in an attempt to secure the region for their own designs. The forests, mineral and fisheries wealth of these island nations means that they are a potentially long term bonanza for logging, fishing and mining companies from these countries and others looking for natural resources in order to grow their economies.
But how much does China or the United States care for the well being of these little states? A lot? Somewhat? None at all?
And this is where New Zealand comes in. As a nation with a degree of familiarity with these countries due to our proximity, the New Zealanders that live in them and their national’s who live here, understand these nations. I went to school with Samoans, Fijians, Tongans, Kiribatians among others. I had in the year ending June 2017 a Rarotongan supervisor. At my previous job at Environment Canterbury I worked with people from Niue. All were great and made me a better person.
The rule of law and democracy in these places is not strong. Papua New Guinea is close to becoming a failed state with little or no Government control, something which the Solomon Islands were close to experiencing in the middle part of last decade. Chinese influence is potentially dangerous because China is a one party state with no tolerance for dissent and has a habit of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. The levels of corruption are cause for a major concern among these island nations. They have limited land space and have islands that are very low lying, prone to storms which may cause eventual abandonment of some
Another challenge facing policy planners in these countries is their small populations. Fiji has 900,000 people; Solomon Islands 600,000; Vanuatu 270,000; Samoa 195,000 people and Tonga 107,000. With such small populations, there is only so much that they can do to support themselves in terms of rate and tax payer funded services.
So, I welcome this aid announcement. It is a major step in the right direction. However for it to be effective there must be follow up aid over the next few years. The old saying goes that Rome was not built in a night – complex and well embedded socio-economic and socio-political problems will not be fixed in a night either.