New Zealand's Pacific policies--time for a reset? Anna Powles and Michael Powles argue that a reconsideration of New Zealand's approach to the Pacific Islands region is warranted.

AuthorPowles, Anna

There have been significant changes within the Pacific Islands region and its wider geopolitical environment. Uncertainties abound, both politically and environmentally. These developments have not been fully reflected in New Zealand policies. Arguably, a number of our policies no longer fully meet New Zealand interests or the interests of our neighbours. Changes and developments in the region call for consideration of a New Zealand policy reset in several areas. While most New Zealand's policies in the Pacific are successful or essential, there is scope for considering adjustment to policies that are partially successful, while some policies should be stopped, radically changed or replaced.


Many aspects of our Pacific neighbourhood are changing. Fiji's move towards democracy, always tumultuous, remains uncertain; governance issues in Papua New Guinea, the regions largest and richest country, and elsewhere in Melanesia, particularly, hamper economic and social development and threaten political stability; Tonga wresdes with record indebtedness; and throughout the region, especially in Kiribati and Tuvalu and on low-lying islands elsewhere, rising ocean levels add a daunting additional challenge to the many others already faced by fragile communities.

Regionally, what has been called a 'New Pacific Diplomacy' has emerged and is said to be changing the substance and form of regional co-operation. (1)

It arises from the increasingly robust Pacific issue-based identity which has emerged over the past decade. It has galvanised Pacific leaders to increased regional activity and to greater participation on the global stage. A growing resistance to the traditional New Zealand-Australian-led orthodoxy has contributed significantly. And intensifying intra-regional dynamics have also informed and are shaping regional co-operation. Pacific states are very much becoming the principal players in their own region, their own 'agents of change'. Accordingly, regional structures (including the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), the Pacific Islands Development Programme (PIDP), the Pacific Small Islands Developing States and the Polynesian Leaders Group) have developed. These changes are also driven by a perception that the former metropolitan powers Australia and New Zealand have become increasingly assertive in pursuing their own agendas in the region. As a result, the past 'established order' comprising the Pacific Islands Forum and its Secretariat and the organisations linked to them has faced intensified competition.

In the background, but impacting directly on the Pacific Islands region itself, dramatic changes are re-shaping the regional and global geopolitical landscape. The resurgence of a more assertive China is the single most significant factor; and now the United States, under the Trump administration, is likely to be startlingly unpredictable. At the same time, some islands countries have demonstrated confidence in their relations with the new powers in the region, especially China.

For New Zealand itself, an accompanying trend in recent years, related to all these national and regional changes, has been the overall reduction in its influence. This article contends that closer attention to New Zealand's role in the Pacific, requiring examination of current policies--where they succeed and how they might be improved--could benefit both New Zealand's interests and those of our neighbours.

There is some justification for a pride some New Zealanders express in their country's record in the Pacific. But account also needs to be taken of New Zealand's historical record, including acquiescence in blackbirding, early greedy imperial ambitions and some significant failures in the early stages of New Zealand administrations in the Pacific, particularly in Samoa.

Pacific identity

By the late 20th century, however, many New Zealand leaders spoke eloquently about the development of the country's Pacific identity and the role they saw for New Zealand in its Pacific neighbourhood. By 1991, then Foreign Minister Don McKinnon was able to say emphatically 'the debate over whether New Zealand is a South Pacific nation is over. This is home'. (2)

During its presidency of the Security Council in July 2015, New Zealand sponsored an open debate on the peace and security challenges facing small islands developing states, with New Zealand stating that it was a 'Pacific country with a significant stake ... in our region'. (3)

Moreover, in recent decades immigration from the Pacific has resulted in a growing Pasifika minority in New Zealand which is becoming increasingly influential politically, socially and culturally. Particularly with the increasing co-operation of Pasifika with Maori, the face of New Zealand and expectations of its role as a good regional neighbour are certainly changing.

This article is the first part of a project that aims to identify aspects of New Zealand's policies in the Pacific that warrant consideration and debate. The policy issues raised will then be discussed more fully in a later phase of the project. We have chosen to divide New Zealand policies into three categories and have selected for highlighting some examples from each. The three categories are of policies which:

* have widespread support and are widely regarded as successful or essential--it is fully acknowledged that most of New Zealand's policies in the Pacific are in this category

* are at least partially successful and should be continued subject to possible changes or adjustments, and

* we suggest should be stopped, radically changed, or replaced by quite different policies; in respect of these policy areas public discussion and debate seems justified.

Successful policies

Not surprisingly, many New Zealand's Pacific policies are in the category of policies that are largely successful. While particular aspects of these policies may require review from time to time, they are broadly regarded positively in New Zealand and the region. They include:

[] The Treaty of Friendship with Samoa. Bipartisan New Zealand support for the treaty, concluded in 1962 seven months after Samoa became independent, is not in doubt. It is seldom mentioned publicly, however, and arguably it could be given greater prominence because the obligations it imposes are both symbolic and important practically. The case for doing so would be based on:

* the past history and present closeness of the relationship,

* the willingness over several years of Samoa's government to support New Zealand bilaterally, regionally and, far from least, on the international stage, and

* the growing proportion of New Zealanders of Samoan heritage whose political, social and cultural influence and contribution to New Zealand as a whole are increasingly significant.

[] Transnational and organised crime in the region. In an address to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs on 25 August 2016, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee cited transnational crime in the Pacific as undermining the sovereignty of Pacific nations and said it was consequently a threat to New Zealand. The most recent Defence Assessment noted that some of the major features of the strategic environment visible in the last five years include the rising sophistication, range and number of actors operating within New Zealand's exclusive economic zone, Southern Ocean and the Pacific Islands. (4)

Transnational and organised crime is not a new phenomenon in Pacific Islands states...

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