This week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters are in Nauru attending the 49th Pacific Islands Forum. Against the backdrop of well-publicised strategic anxieties and foreign policy recalibration towards the Pacific Islands here, here and here, this year’s pre-eminent annual meeting of regional leaders is shaping up to be particularly interesting.
First, a new security declaration, known as Biketawa Plus, will be launched. This will be the newest addition to the regional security architecture since the Biketawa Declaration was signed eighteen years ago. The 2000 Biketawa Declaration is best known for mandating the fourteen year-long Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and the new declaration, likely to be named the Boe Declaration after Nauruan Prime Minister Baron Waqa’s home district of Boe, seeks to expand both regional cooperation and the concept of security.
Second, this will be a critical opportunity for Ardern and Peters to reinforce to the region’s leaders the principles and priorities that underpin New Zealand’s Pacific Reset. In February, Ardern stated that, in the Pacific, "we can do better, and we will". The following month, Peters announced New Zealand was embarking on a new, re-energized Pacific strategy. In May the New Zealand Government announced a NZD$900 million increase in spending over the next four years, with NZD$714.22 million allocated to the Pacific and NZD$150 million to restoring lost capacity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Now is the chance to demonstrate that the Reset is indeed both form and substance and that New Zealand understands that relationships trump policy in the Pacific.
In the months since the launch of the Reset, policies promoted by the aid and defence lobbies have competed for centre stage. Both, however, have overlooked that Ardern and Peters committed to a reset which went beyond development and defence practicalities, As a consequence, expectations have been raised and therefore need to be met. A New Zealand focus on strengthening Pacific relationships should therefore be at the core of the Pacific policy reset. Such relationships, and enhanced New Zealand mana, will provide the essential foundation for the pursuit of development and security objectives in the region.
The Reset can only succeed if there is effectively a new mindset and an adjustment of New Zealand government perspectives. The core has to be a stronger New Zealand commitment to work with Pacific peoples in the pursuit of their own goals and their own objectives - in other words in support of what is now frequently called 'Pacific agency'. This may require some adjustment to our own aims and objectives but not to our core values, which are unlikely to conflict in any serious ways with support for our Pacific neighbours. If we do not make this adjustment, genuine change in New Zealand's relations with the Pacific will not occur. Vastly increased New Zealand expenditure on development and defence projects will make a superficial difference but it will not increase influence in the region.
One factor seldom discussed by governments and opinion-leaders outside the immediate Pacific Island community is the attitude of Pacific leaders themselves. If New Zealand's reset – as well as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States’ re-engagement with the region - is to mean anything significant, it must oblige us to give serious weight to the views of Pacific Island leaders. And those have been made abundantly clear. From the well-attended conference on China and the Pacific which was held in Apia in 2015 to recent statements by influential Pacific leaders like Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister O'Neill, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi, and Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, there has been no uncertainty or ambiguity in the clear Pacific view. China is welcome in the region - both for its aid and for the manner in which it has shown respect for Pacific Island leaders and interests. There is genuine confidence in Pacific Island countries that they can deal with China successfully, protecting and promoting their own interests and growing frustration towards "a patronising nuance...believing Pacific nations did not know what they were doing".
Third, this week’s sharp shift within the Australian political sphere towards deep conservatism is likely to create greater divergence between Wellington and Canberra. The political reshuffle saw the resignation of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the appointment of her successor, former Defence Minister Marise Payne, to the role. Most notably, the downgrading of the International Development and Pacific portfolio to Assistant Minister status – the equivalent to Parliamentary Secretary – sends an unequivocal message to Australia’s closest partners that the Pacific is not a priority for the new Morrison Government. The candid revelation by the new Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Anne Ruston, that she had "no idea" how she got the job does not bode well for the portfolio. Ruston has a record for voting against foreign aid increases and has limited Pacific experience. Foreign Minister Payne has asserted that she would be "leading from the front" in making the Pacific a priority, however there is legitimate concern that defence priorities may inform Payne’s foreign policy towards the Pacific. There are also valid concerns that critical issues such as climate change will become even more contested between the Pacific and Australia. Both Marshallese President, Dr Hilda Heine, and Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, have quickly reminded Prime Minister Scott Morrison, famous for his coal stunt in Parliament, of the need to take stronger action on climate change.
It is the announcement, however, that Australia’s new Prime Minister will not attend the Pacific Islands Forum but visited Indonesia to ink a free trade deal days after the leadership win which sends the strongest message. Morrison’s comment that he was disappointed not to attend but expected to be teased for his absence appeared disingenuous at best; and citing the drought as a reason for remaining in Australia smacked of irony given this year’s focus on climate change. Australian prime ministers have a healthy tradition of not attending regional meetings of Pacific leaders and delegating the building of relationships with Pacific heads of government - in this instance, Payne will attend in Morrison’s place but the optics are clear.
Which begs the question: what’s next for Australia’s step-change policy towards the Pacific? Since the 2017 White Paper committed Australia to a more “ambitious and intensified engagement” in the Pacific, we have largely seen security-driven initiatives such as the submarine high speed internet cable link between the Solomon Islands and Australia, and the signing of bilateral security agreements with the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Nauru. A genuine step-change would recognise that relationships have the greater currency in the Pacific.
Where this leaves Australia’s partners such as New Zealand is of equal concern. Less than seven months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Peters stated in Sydney that “there has never been a time since 1945 when Australia and New Zealand need to work together more closely in the Pacific.” Last week his words were less confident, stating that there's danger of trans-Tasman work in the Pacific stalling. For Ardern and Peters in Nauru, there will be a clear desire to clarify ambiguity and divergence in the relationship. The challenge for Ardern and Peters will be to uphold the principles set forth in the Pacific Reset and demonstrate to both Pacific partners and Australia that the Reset is more than just a policy buzzword, but a genuine shift towards partnership.
Anna Powles is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University. Michael Powles is a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Image credit: Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters arrives in Nauru for the 48th Pacific Islands Forum. Jason Oxenham/AP