Facing the challenge of New Zealand's near abroad: Terence O'Brien discusses aspects of New Zealand policies in the South Pacific.

AuthorO'Brien, Terence

The South Pacific is New Zealand's 'near abroad', and dealings with it can be both complex and challenging. Three benchmarks under-pin New Zealand's approach: the decolonisation period, in which New Zealand played a constructive role; the path-breaking administrative reforms made by the fourth Labour government, which weakened longstanding specialist links with the Islands; and New Zealand's close involvement in devising the Pacific Plan for region-wide progress. Especially in regard to the plan, New Zealand (with Australia) has embarked on a course that has exposed it to criticism from regional administrations. Both metropolitan powers need to take account of the regional impact of the fundamental transformation occurring in international relations.


Why is the South Pacific and New Zealand foreign policy in the South Pacific important to this country? The obvious explanation lies first and foremost in the iron law of near-by geography, in traditional connections of politics, economics, commerce, culture, ethnicity, history and religion; and most obviously in New Zealand's overall national interest in co-existing within a friendly, well-disposed, prosperous neighbourhood. There is also a dimension of obligation, especially with regard to Pacific Polynesia since New Zealand was the colonial administrator of Samoa, the Cooks, Nuie and Tokelau. It was responsible for their conduct towards self-government. That creates a legacy that endures in different ways with each of those islands.

The South Pacific is New Zealand's 'near abroad' and modern international relations teaches that dealings with the 'near abroad' can indeed be most complex and challenging, often more so than dealings with countries at a greater distance. Political, social, economic, personal, community and historical connections, and past mistakes even skeletons in the cupboard, combine often to test foreign policy in the 'near abroad'. Above all, the South Pacific is testimony to the need for duality in New Zealand foreign policy--because within the region what New Zealand foreign policy actually does or does not do can reverberate favourably or controversially; whereas out in the big world, even as its foreign policy strives to promote and protect national interests, New Zealand is itself strategically invisible, so it operates largely below the radar screens of the powerful. This is not necessarily an impediment to success.

A consequential dimension of the 'near abroad' challenge is that New Zealand (and Australia), as a traditional aid donor, directs most of its overseas aid into its immediate neighbourhood--the Pacific Islands region. Amongst donor countries this is a fairly rare experience. Most other donors (for example, the Scandinavians) direct the bulk of their generous aid to distant recipients. There is a detachment and objectivity, therefore, to such aid operations that is absent in New Zealand's experience, where the profile of its aid effort is more immediate, and where a sizable diaspora within its own population of people and non-government communities from Pacific Islands recipients add to the scrutiny of New Zealand's actual overseas development aid performance.

Basic question

The South Pacific has always posed a basic question of identity for this country in modern foreign affairs. New Zealand is plainly itself a country in the South Pacific, but is it now politically and conceptually a country of the South Pacific? Given our geography and the very numbers of our population with Pacific and Polynesian heritage, it seems logical that New Zealand would the more readily identify itself as being of the South Pacific. Australia, on the other hand, given the realities of its geography, its sheer critical mass, its wider range of international interests and its economic potential now reflected in its membership of the G20, would the more readily assume a metropolitan position in its relationship with the Pacific Islands region. With the single exception of Papua New Guinea, Australia for a longish period displayed little sustained interest in the Pacific Islands region. Unlike New Zealand prime ministers, Australian leaders in the past were less punctilious in attending annual Pacific Forum summits.

So conventional wisdom distinguished between New Zealand's more attentive South Pacific role, and Australia's more avuncular interest. But the pressure of regional and global events over the past 20 years, especially in the post-9/11 world, has in fact gradually disproved the conventional wisdom. The focus of Australian interest on the Pacific Islands region has sharpened, and a New Zealand claim to a more attentive and distinctive approach in the Pacific Islands region has been perceptibly submerged as Australian resources and energy have been brought to bear with definite effect. New Zealand policy-makers have either judged that it is in New Zealand interests to acquiesce because of the greater importance of its Australian relationship, or that New Zealand has in effect no choice in the matter. It would be useful to know precisely where that balance lies, or whether it is indeed the actual choice.

Loosened structures

In the post-9/11 world concern with international terrorism plus the reverberations of so-called globalisation sweeping over small, fragile, remote island economies have loosened social structures and traditional patterns of authority. External anxiety was heightened about the viability of small states in the South Pacific...

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