Treading the South Pacific foreign policy tight rope


Over the years New Zealand has been involved in many events on the world stage. Most for the right reasons and a few for somewhat questionable reasons. New Zealand has – depending on the Government of the day, said we have interests overseas and closer to home in the South Pacific.

When one looks at the major problems around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Europe, New Zealand is a comparatively minor player. Most of those problems are not ones worth investing our time, money or resources in. Our time, money and resources are best invested in the South Pacific, which is our proverbial back yard. And there are good reasons for doing so.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

A good example of this was Papua New Guinea’s decision to import 40 Maserati vehicles for A.P.E.C. which was held over the weekend just gone. Despite not being able to properly fund its social welfare, education or health systems, Papua New Guinea, with China’s help was able to somehow spend tens of millions of dollars on a three day talk fest that wound up being a farce.

A.P.E.C. was meant to be a summit to talk about the economic challenges facing the Asia Pacific region. Instead it became a U.S./China debating competition. The tensions rose to the point that Chinese officials barged into the Papua New Guinean Prime Ministers office and demanded changes to something that had been agreed to and only left when threatened with arrest. No joint statement was agreed to by the delegations and the other nations including New Zealand were reduced to being spectators to a super power argument.

Few of the issues on the agenda that need tackling would have been.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. The bulk of our foreign policy effort should be in the South Pacific. New Zealand should be showing that we are their best friends.

And in terms of understanding the underlying problems, the culture and the needs of these nations, New Zealand and Australia are best placed to do so.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. The United States is expanding the deployment of U.S. forces in Australia, which is part of a change in doctrine that President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barak Obama instigated to counter Chinese influence in the South Pacific.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talked about protecting the South Pacific nations maritime and sovereign interests. I found that interesting since alongside Chinese influence, the next biggest threat to their sovereignty is environmental degradation making the smallest of them uninhabitable – something the U.S. Government of Donald Trump all but denies existing.

So, tell me now. Who has the the South Pacific’s interests most at heart? The U.S.?
China? Or New Zealand and (maybe) Australia?

 

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