Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand can handle security issues in the Pacific, as China seeks to sign a sweeping, region-wide agreement with 10 island nations.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi begins a week-long trip around the Pacific on Thursday and reportedly would be seeking to sign countries onto an agreement that spanned co-operation on development, trade, law enforcement, security, fisheries, and internet networks.
Ardern appears to have been warned of the new agreement nearly a week ago, in a letter from a Pacific Island president who described it as threatening “to bring a new Cold War era at best, and a World War at worst”.
A draft of the agreement, seen by Stuff, includes provisions such as co-operation on “traditional and non-traditional security” and cyber-security, the provision of “high-level police training”, as well as putting “equal emphasis on development and security”.
Also proposed would be co-operation on a “marine spatial plan” for making use of marine resources, a China-Pacific free trade area, and co-operation on a “smart customs, smart border” system.
A separate “five year action plan” proposed a Chinese special envoy would be appointed for the region, that China would build crime laboratories, provide hundreds of training opportunities, and hold various high-level forums.
Wang began his trip in the Solomon Islands and will travel to Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
He will virtually meet with the leaders of Micronesia, Cook Islands, and Niue, and host a second meeting of China-Pacific Islands foreign ministers while in Fiji. The first such meeting took place in October 2021.
Cook Islands and Niue are both island nations within New Zealand’s realm.
According to the Associated Press, which reported details of the agreement on Wednesday evening, Wang would ask all 10 countries to endorse the agreement.
The Chinese bid to form a multilateral agreement with Pacific Island countries comes weeks after China struck a security arrangement with Solomon Islands, which alarmed New Zealand and Australia for fear it could result in a Chinese military base in the Pacific
China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Webin declined to comment on whether China would be signing a region-wide agreement with Pacific nations, when asked at a press conference on Wednesday.
“China will release information in due course. Please stay tuned,” he said.
Ardern, speaking while on a trade mission in the United States, said China was trying to expand its engagement with the Pacific into areas where the need could already be met.
"We're very strongly of the view that we have within the Pacific the means and ability to respond to any security challenges that exist, and New Zealand is willing to do that.
"It's not for us to speak on behalf of other Pacific Island nations but what I can say is that where that need exists, New Zealand stands ready to respond to it.”
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She said China was seeking to draw a wide membership of Pacific nations, so it was important the region as a whole discuss this at the Pacific Island Forum – due to meet in July after some delay.
"That Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting ... will be incredibly important as an opportunity for the Pacific to canvas its view on that increasing presence and the actions of China to increase its role in the Pacific.”
The forum has been troubled in the past year, after five Micronesian states threatened to quit over the appointment of former Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna to its secretariat.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, in an interview on Wednesday before details of the proposed agreement emerged, said she did “not directly” know of any further security arrangements China was seeking to sign in the region.
Dr Anna Powles, a Massey University expert in Pacific security, said she had seen a copy of the proposed agreements and had received verification of their authenticity.
“It’s incredibly ambitious in scope and intent, it really demonstrates ambitions to shape the regional order in the Pacific,” she said.
“It aligns economic co-operation with security co-operation, which creates a dilemma for these countries which are seeking economic co-operation with China for their own development needs.”
She said there was a “strong pushback” within the region on the agreement, though some countries make seek to bi-lateral agreements with China on such terms.
“I do not see the region as a bloc agreeing to sign up to this. Countries would rightly be concerned about a loss of strategic autonomy.”
Powles said though New Zealand was responsible for the defence of Cook Islands and Niue, these countries were able to pursue their own foreign policy interests.
Federated Micronesian States, which has close strategic ties to the United States, promised to reject the proposal in a letter written on May 20 and sent to Pacific leaders, including Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In the letter, published by the ABC, Micronesia President David Penuelo said the agreement would bring their countries "very close into Beijing's orbit, intrinsically tying the whole of our economies and societies to them".
The agreement sought Chinese control of communications and customs infrastructure, Penuelo said, “for the purpose of biodata collection and mass surveillance”.
"The practical impacts, however, of Chinese control over our communications infrastructure, our ocean territory and the resources within them, and our security space, aside from impacts on our sovereignty, is that it increases the chances of China getting into conflict with Australia, Japan, the United States and New Zealand," he said.
He said the Pacific’s traditional partners did need to “show up more often, with more sincerity”, specifically: Australia needed to take climate change more seriously, and the US needed to provide more assistance.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been approached for comment.