Supporting our South Pacific neighbours

Jacinda Ardern at the Pasifika Festival in Auckland in March this year. Photo: Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern at the Pasifika Festival in Auckland in March this year. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand's close association with its Pacific neighbours is often underplayed here.

Travel to Auckland, and Pacific cultures are widespread. New Zealand has always claimed a partnership with the Pacific Islands, but that has not always been so.

As far back as 2009, former foreign affairs and trade minister Murray McCully expressed his concerns about New Zealand's aid programme to the Pacific, saying it had failed and needed overhauling.

National was then criticised for its small increase in Pacific aid and Mr McCully was accused of politicising the aid programme - something he rejected strongly.

Some changes were obviously needed. The aid dollars had done little to build sustainable economies providing employment and economic growth.

Too much money was being spent on unproductive bureaucracies and when money was urgently needed, it was missing.

Depopulation was happening at an alarming rate in the Pacific, and still is.

This week, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela was in New Zealand talking about China's influence on his and other Pacific Islands.

New Zealanders on holiday in places like Samoa and Rarotonga are well aware of the construction activities of Chinese companies. China is in competition with Taiwan in the Pacific, both exerting their influence from their cash-rich economies.

Mr Houenipwela did not comment on the reasons behind a recent lift in Pacific aid and China's growing influence

Fiji and Papua New Guinea receive the bulk of Chinese investment and trade. Relations between Fiji and New Zealand remain strained.

New Zealand committed last month an additional $714 million in foreign aid over the next four years as part of its ``Pacific Reset'' strategy.

New Zealand's aid funding is aimed at ensuring it holds ground as China and other countries increase their own presence.

The Solomons may be in line for Chinese investment. Officials have held talks about a possible tourism hub, although the Solomons already has diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Chinese firm Huawei had planned to build a telecommunications cable linking the Solomons to Sydney but the Australian Government took over the project after concerns that China would use it for spying.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand will spend another $2 million to help the Solomons create a state-owned enterprise to run Munda Airport. The investment was not necessarily an example of New Zealand providing aid to counter the investments from other countries.

Quite simply, New Zealand should be assessing aid from other nations. Pacific security is down to New Zealand and Australia.

Mr McCully's words ring true. In many locations, other powers from outside the region have moved in where New Zealand unwisely has vacated. What annoyed Mr McCully was that the aid spent did not return through increased imports. Instead, it was frittered away.

Australia's $1.4 billion Pacific contribution now represents 30% of Australia's total aid budget.

Commentators said the subtext for Australian Pacific aid projects, including an undersea internet cable to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and a new Pacific Security College, was a counter to China and concern over an increasingly contested regional order.

New Zealand and Australia do have an obligation to support the Pacific Islands. Both countries have stripped the islands of their best and brightest young people - sometimes to sport and sometimes to work in factories or to the professions.

Ms Ardern has made a strong statement to the rest of the Pacific by supporting the Solomon Islands. Although some say charity begins at home, the Pacific Islands are and will continue to be home for many New Zealanders.

 

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