OPINION: In 2009, when at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., I attended a guest lecture about China’s nascent foothold in Antarctica, with images of its first ramshackle base. A bunch of badly attired scientists huddled outside their shack. Compared to our well-established Scott Base, it looked like amateur hour. Thirteen years on, China has five bases on the ice.
When I went into the Beehive in 2017 to work for then foreign minister Winston peters, I brought with me an everyday sense of China and its Pacific ambitions. When I say everyday sense, I mean, look at a map, see where China is, see where the South China Sea and China’s fortified man-made islands are, see where Pacific Islands are dotted, then see where New Zealand is, and the space between them and us, and then see where the Antarctic is.Their direction of travel seemed clear enough, southwards, and paved in the language of belts and roads and the coin of cheap debt. The other everyday sense of things I took into the building was an outlook that took the world as I found it.
News this week of a draft security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, which seemingly caught Australian and New Zealand governments by surprise, has burst the issue of China’s ambitions into the open.
I can’t speak to our government’s response. But I can explain what we tried to do when Winston Peters was Foreign Minister. To be clear, this is my take, not his, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade , or anyone else’s. And what follows is only a sketch of foreign policy between 2017-2020.
The Minister focused on the Pacific from the get-go. He delivered a speech early in 2018 titled ‘Shifting the Dial.’ It was well timed, and well received in Australia, where it was delivered. It framed the Government’s ‘Pacific Reset’ and the strategy would be underwritten by the huge appropriation we negotiated for Overseas Development Aide (ODA) in the 2018 budget.
The Pacific Reset set the direction and had two significant planks. One was a return to a highly active, traditional diplomacy. That diplomacy was informed by our having “our eyes wide open” to Pacific influences, eyes that stayed open for three years I should add. The other strand was New Zealand putting its money where its mouth was to show partners it was serious, which it did and was.
When Winston became Minister, our ODA was heading to .21 of Gross National Income (GNI), which placed New Zealand as the stingiest aide giver in the entire OECD. When he left it was .33 of GNI, the highest since Norm Kirk. It’s now drifted back to .27.
Shifting the dial on ODA mattered. Australia and other partners noticed and approved. Australia followed suit in their budget. The US now has too.Resources mattered, and to overcome New Zealand’s perennial disadvantage of scale, working with partners meant being able to better leverage resources, and offer far larger and better infrastructure choices to Pacific governments than any single country could.
Minister Peters walked his talk here, with active diplomatic efforts that attracted renewed Pacific focus from Japan, the United Kingdom, the EU, and, eventually, the United States.
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- What a Chinese military base in the Solomon Islands will mean for Australia
- New Zealand's Australia-friendly response to China-Solomon Islands security deal
- Why the Solomon Islands risks becoming a bull's-eye of the Pacific
An early example, in late 2018, was our joining, alongside Australia, Japan and Papua New Guinea, an electrical partnership that sought to increase electricity access to 70 per cent of the population in PNG by the end of this decade.
The Pacific Reset offered better aligned foreign and defence policy. And focused them where they would have the most influence, the Pacific. Minister Peters showed Vice President Pence a map of New Zealand’s search and rescue region, and our economic zone, which if overlaid on the North American Continent, would stretch from the North Pole to Panama. That picture spoke a thousand words.
And, putting money where our mouth is, with the purchase of four P8-A Poseidon 8’s, attracted benefits greater than an air surveillance capability upgrade.
I believe it helped ease our exits out of Afghanistan and Iraq. We were not cutting and running. We were, as a small country, responsible for an oversized patch of the Great Blue Continent, trying to focus our scarce resources where we could make our best contribution, the Pacific, all the way down to the Ross Dependency, and Scott Base.
Minister Ron Mark secured $4.3 billion of defence appropriation in his three budgets, replacing the ancient fleet of Hercules, those great workhorses in the Pacific in times of stress and need. With the Southern Ocean patrol vessel now on the backburner, some capability gaps could be closed out of coalition-era money already appropriated for complementary capabilities.
The Russian invasion reinforces that great powers act on ambition. And it would be fair to say that things have shifted quicker in China during the last 10 years than our calibration of them.
For any government, trying to maintain that equilibrium which balances our prosperity and security is tricky. That problem isn’t new, nor are the solutions. They all cost, otherwise strategy is undermined, execution will falter, and rhetoric becomes empty.
The Solomon’s fuss is a wake-up call to an inward-looking New Zealand that it needs to sharpen its outward focus. The Prime Minister’s forthcoming trade-focused trips are a dimension of this focus. Developing partnerships with like-minded countries to help protect and transform Pacific futures, in the ways the Islands want to fashion them, is another.
Jon Johansson was once a political scientist, chief of staff to deputy prime minister and foreign minister Winston Peters, and is a Wellington based communications consultant.