Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta needs to be in “hot pursuit” of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he asks Pacific countries to sign a sweeping security and development agreement, the National Party says.
Wang began a 10-day trip across the Pacific on Thursday, reportedly seeking to sign 10 Pacific countries onto a multi-country agreement that spans co-operation on development, trade, law enforcement, security, education, and internet networks.
The proposed agreement, which the Government has known about for at least six days, has already been rejected by the Federated States of Micronesia, which says it would bring the Pacific countries into Beijing’s “orbit” and risk geopolitical confrontation.
National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said it appeared New Zealand had “missed the boat” when it came to preserving its relationships in the Pacific as China sought to have greater influence.
“Nanaia Mahuta needs to tell us what the Government's going to do to put New Zealand in a better light with our Pacific neighbours.
“It’d be a good idea if she was visiting those countries in hot pursuit of the Chinese foreign minister ... We need to understand more about what that [agreement] is going to mean.”
He said the Government had spent considerably more money on the Pacific than China was offering, but a Chinese offer of free trade would be “of great value”.
Brownlee said the agreement appeared to ask the Pacific nations to “give away a lot of autonomy”, including by insisting of a commitment to the United Nations system, where China has a veto on the Security Council.
An offer of 2500 scholarships to Pacific Island countries and building Confucius institutes – which are state-backed Chinese cultural and education organsiations – raised the prospect of young Pacific Islanders absorbing China’s culture and turning away from democratic principles, he said.
- Solomons media angry over 'ridiculous' restrictions at China conference
- Analysts say China's plans for the Pacific 'a big worry', but doubt they can pull it off
- China wants 10 Pacific nations to endorse 'game-changing' agreement
- China seeks Pacific islands deal on policing, security cooperation, document reveals
Though it was a “good move” that the Government was now asking that such developments in the Pacific be discussed at the regional Pacific Island Forum, Brownlee said this had come too late.
“That body was set up to be a government-to-government, leader to lead a point of discussion, but I don't think it's been given the emphasis that it should have over recent years.”
The Pacific Island forum has been troubled by a major rift, with Micronesian countries threatening to withdraw last year after a dispute over who should lead the secretariat. The forum was expected to meet in July.
“I don't think it's going be in any great shape for trying to defeat this sort of proposal,” Brownlee said.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for Mahuta said the minister would not be commenting on China’s agreement as the prime minister had spoken for the Government.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking in the US on Thursday, said New Zealand was in “constant engagement” with its Pacific neighbours.
"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.
"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.”
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said it would be a concern if any developments “pre-empt” a conversation at the Pacific Island forum.
“We have highlighted to all partners that New Zealand does not want strategic competition in the Pacific. Any activities that destabilise the current institutions and arrangements that underpin our region’s security benefit neither New Zealand or other Pacific countries.”
A draft of the agreement China was pitching to Pacific countries, 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”.
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 also virtually meet with the leaders of Micronesia, Cook Islands, and Niue.