Assessing the Pacific Reset: Dr Iati Iati examines and analyses some of the key tenets of New Zealand's approach to Pacific Islands countries.

Most observers of Pacific geopolitics assume that one of the key purposes of the Pacific Reset is to counter China's influence in the Pacific. We have had conflicting messages from the government, some directly disputing this assumption. From an outsider's perspective, however, both the narrative and policies surrounding the reset point to no other conclusion than that a key goal is to counter China.

The New Zealand government has not directly said that this is the reset's purpose. In fact, the foreign minister at the time of its initiation, Winston Peters, strongly denied that the reset was 'specifically to counter China'. In a 4 December 2018 Radio New Zealand interview, he explained that the reset was designed 'to ensure that the shape and character of our neighbourhood maintains the level of influence of countries who believe in democracy ... who believe in sovereignty and countries who have got the best interest of the neighbourhood in mind, not some wider and larger purpose'.

Where it gets interesting is that in a 2018 report by Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance, New Zealand was said to be 'vulnerable to Chinese influence' and that 'China appears ready to exploit' New Zealand's pursuance of closer ties with it 'to subvert New Zealand's continued ability to independently shape its policy priorities'. (1) In the same Radio New Zealand interview, the following was put to Peters: 'It [the Stanford report] goes on to say that New Zealand has long pursued ties with China but what is changing is the willfulness with which China appears to exploit the dynamic with New Zealand and to subvert New Zealand's continued ability to independently shape its policy priorities.' Asked what he was doing to counter that, Peters replied:

The first thing we did when we became a government and I became foreign minister was set out to evaluate what had gone on and that's why we've got the Pacific Reset, which is a huge turnaround in our approach to our neighbourhood and our engagement with it, ... and our engagement with. every government in the Pacific and also those other players such as Japan, Australia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, France ... In the same year, in a speech at Sydney's Lowy Institute, Peters stated that 'the Pacific has also become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by great power ambition, and so Pacific Island leaders have more options. This is creating a degree of strategic anxiety.' (2) This begs the question: which great power or great powers are creating strategic anxiety for New Zealand? A process of elimination based on common sense suggests it is China. China, the United States and France are the only great powers active in the Pacific, and, of these three, China is the relative newcomer.

Colonising history

France and the United States have long histories as colonisers in this region, and continue to control their dependencies and, in the case of the United States, the Compact of Free Association states. As such, it does not make sense that France and the United States are the ones Peters is referring to as having 'great power ambition' in the Pacific, and it would be highly surprising if New Zealand was strategically anxious about US activities in the region. New Zealand wants more and not less United States involvement in the Pacific (hence the Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012, respectively). France has long had its own gig in the region, and, even though its dependencies are getting more involved in regionalism, countering France would seem the least of New Zealand's concerns.

So, if not the United States and France, then who? Could it be that the United Kingdom is a threat? The United Kingdom is not a big power in this region anymore. While it has opened up three diplomatic posts in the region, that does not put it in the race for regional hegemony. As Professor Jon Fraenkel notes,

It's an attempt to ramp up a diplomatic presence which is I suppose a good thing after an era where Britain has withdrawn. But I don't really see the connections with the Island States figuring in a major way in British foreign policy in the future. It's too far away and its interests aren't there. (3) And, even if the United Kingdom was intending to ramp up its presence, there are no reasons why New Zealand would be opposed. Who of the great powers does that leave? China and Russia.

To be sure, Russia has popped up now and then on the regional geopolitical radar, with activities around West Papua and with Fiji. Sending a Russian naval ship to Papua New Guinea on a goodwill mission before the APEC meeting probably got some pundits excited? But is it reasonable to believe that these activities are sufficient to get New Zealand strategically anxious? Probably not. China is the only one whose ambitions would cause New Zealand strategic anxiety.

Apart from countering China, the other key parts of the Pacific Reset have been clearly laid out by the government. First, New Zealand is moving away from a donor-recipient model to one based on partnership. Peters, and other members of the foreign policy community, have made this clear in a number of places. At the NZIIA conference in October 2019, Peters said

We are moving away from the donor-recipient dynamics of the past, and building more mature relationships with Pacific Island countries. The message that New Zealand is a partner, and not just a donor, has resonated in the region and enabled frank conversations about shared policy priorities and challenges. (4) Basic diplomacy

Second, the reset is focusing on a 'back-to-basics' diplomacy. This means greater engagement with Pacific governments, which involves a budgetary increase, and an increase in New Zealand's diplomatic footprint in the region; fourteen out of the 50 new diplomatic positions are focused on the Pacific. According to Peters, this will demonstrate New Zealand's commitment to the region, allowing New Zealand to do more in relation to issues such as climate change, good governance, human rights and women's political development, as well as give more funding to multilateral institutions.

Third, a key strand of the Pacific Reset is to build on the message that New Zealand is a Pacific country. Obviously, New Zealand adopted this identity a while ago, but it is key to the reset, for a number of reasons, none more so than the need to emphasise the partnership dimension. I will refer to the historical aspects of this identity below, and the issues with pushing this narrative. Here, I want to draw attention to how this identity factors into the reset.

Our foreign ministers have, understandably, proudly flown the Pacific flag, and got considerable traction out of this identity. The mantra that New Zealand would represent small countries, like those in this region, was important in getting New Zealand elected to the UN Security Council for a fourth term under the Key government.

Following in this tradition, Peters has made a point of highlighting our Pacific identity. In his NZIIA speech, he said

New Zealand is a Pacific country, linked by history, culture, politics, and demographics. As part of the Pacific family, New Zealand is deeply conscious that our identity, our national security and our prosperity are inextricably linked. We have, in a very genuine sense, a shared Pacific destiny. A number of New Zealand government documents and websites express similar sentiments to those expressed by Peters, but sometimes with a little more specificity. A 2018 redacted Cabinet paper...

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