Stuff | 1 March 2018
New Zealand risks ’strategic nincompoop’ status in the Pacific
by PATTRICK SMELLIE
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first major foreign policy speech, delivered this week, ended with the observation that when New Zealand speaks on the world stage, it does so with "credibility" and when it acts, it does so with "decency".
We’d all certainly like to believe that.
But as she heads to Sydney to meet counterpart Malcolm Turnbull this Friday and next week makes a tour of the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Niue, uncomfortable questions are being asked about how well New Zealand is playing its role in the Pacific.
Speaking at the same New Zealand Institute of International Affairs conference as Ardern, an associate fellow with the global think tank Chatham House, Dr Cleo Paskal, laid out a damning alternative to the assumption New Zealand is Pacific Island countries’(PICs) best friend.
Rather, she says New Zealand risks "strategic nincompoop" status as the contest for influence in the region heats up against a global backdrop in which China and authoritarianism are on the rise while the global rules-based system underpinned since the Second World War by the United States declines.
Speaking at the same session as Paskal, Australian Institute of International Affairs president Allan Gyngell declared the post-war global order "is over" and "we’re going to look back on that period as one that was much better suited to small and middle-sized powers" like New Zealand and Australia.
Gyngell’s point was partly hawkish Aussie, suggesting New Zealand won’t be able to keep straddling the diplomatic fence between the US and China, and between the economic and security trade-offs implied by choosing between the two.
In that context, Paskal suggested a troubling confusion in attempting to integrate PICs into the economies of Australia and New Zealand using mechanisms such as the PACER Plus free trade agreement.
Rather than making these strategically important neighbours more resilient and self-sufficient, PACER Plus is likely to make them poorer, less well-disposed to New Zealand and Australia, and more likely to be driven into the arms of regional contestants such as the Chinese, she argued.
Excluding French Polynesian territories, PICs represent just 2.3 million people spread across 15 per cent of the Earth’s surface. The World Bank says they are among the most exposed to annual natural disasters and long term climate change impacts.
Yet their geographic location means their strategic importance, for shipping and aviation, defence and security, and access to resources, particularly fish stocks far outstrips their economic potential.
Just making them viable states is challenge enough, and the blandishments of cheap loans, few-strings-attached infrastructure projects and resource deals with other nations, particularly China, are deeply tempting to Pacific Island governments.
That being so, New Zealand and Australia’s main strategic focus should be to keep the PICs focused on Australasia as their main source of regional security and support, Paskal argued.
Instead, New Zealand and Australia have been pursuing "an incredibly peculiar deal" in the form of PACER Plus, for which there are "few, if any, good reasons" for PICs to sign.
Rather than strengthening the region, PACER Plus is "essentially creating division economically in the region … creating regional instability, contributing to global disruption, giving openings to China and others and will fundamentally make New Zealand look like a strategic nincompoop, at best", she said.
Papua New Guinea and Fiji have already refused to sign the deal, Tonga is wobbly, and US-aligned Federated States of Micronesia have gone AWOL, and French Polynesia was always outside the tent.
"If we’re talking about moral leadership, you really need to take a look at the reality of what’s going on in the trade negotiations going in with Pacific Island partners," said Paskal.