New Zealand’s navy and air force are to boost their presence in the Pacific, in the first solid example of that country’s “Pacific Reset” in action.
Yesterday, Cook Islands Police Minister Mac Mokoroa welcomed the undertakings contained in a New Zealand Defence Force report.
Advancing Pacific Partnershipscommits to an “inter-generational investment in a secure, stable and resilient Pacific”, according to New Zealand’s Defence Minister Ron Mark.
He was speaking to New Zealand diplomatic staff from Pacific posts including the High Commission in Rarotonga. Pacific People’s Minister Su’a Aupito William Sio tweeted his congratulations on the report from the event.
The Defence Force’s $20 billion, 10-year budget would continue to boost working relationships for police and maritime surveillance work.
Mokoroa said Cook Islands could be thankful for that. “That support from New Zealand and Australia is always welcome, and we deeply do appreciate the support to our surveillance work given the size of our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
But questions have also been raised about the lack of Pacific input into the strategy, and why it painstaking avoids mention of a key Pacific partner, China.
“If you are going to dive into a major report like this with the Maori korero of the greatest thing in the world being people, people, people, then where are the people talking in this report?", asked one senior Cooks official.
“There’s lots of language around engagement and partnership, but it would have been nice to see that demonstrated in the actual report.”
The official was also critical of the failure to discuss China’s role, with references instead to “greater competition for influence in the Pacific” and “external actors seeking to enhance their regional presence”.
Pacific Islands nations were well-engaged with China, the official said, yet the New Zealand report tiptoed around that.
Cook Islands High Commissioner Elizabeth Wright-Koteka was more supportive, describing New Zealeand Defence Force’s strategy as “timely from the Cook Islands perspective”.
“We are beginning to develop our own security framework and we can explore the synergies in our priorities with the Pacific partnership and areas of collaboration.”
She said last night that security was one of the pillars of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Statement of Strategic Intentions for the next four years, and covered immigration, climate change, ocean governance, institutional strengthening, security partnerships, and more.
“We certainly look forward to partnering with New Zealand in implementing the Pacific Partnership where it aligns to our own national priorities.”
Professor Rouben Azizian, director of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, was MC for the launch. He said the questions being raised by Cook Islands were valid.
The lack of clarity round China’s role in the region would continue to be a struggle, he warned. “The next challenge of this strategy is, how do we engage with China in a way that it’s a win-win?”
Pacific leaders did not want to be forced to take sides: "Before we thought it was a given that we and Australia were the main providers of aid support, and as we hosted the world's largest Polynesian population, we were basically indispensable.
“It was very much a one-way street of ‘they need us more than we need them’.”
"That formula now has become redundant. Pacific nations are starting to become more confident, more assertive, and looking for other options.
“Fiji, Papua New Guinea and others are starting to diversify their foreign policy and they are taking advantage of new opportunities – China being the big one.”