|The Solomon Islands has an official foreign policy of being “friends to all and enemies to none”. New Zealand could learn a lot from this approach, as this country heads down a path of being friends only with traditional Anglo countries, bullies to our Pacific neighbours, and enemies with our biggest trading partner China.
New Zealand, together with Australia and the US, is ramping up the militarisation of the Pacific and pushing us towards a confrontation with China. This can only be very negative for our standard of living, and worse for regional peace and harmony.
Of course, China itself is currently pushing the boundaries in the Asia Pacific. Like New Zealand and the West, they want to have a presence and influence in their “backyard”. And by developing a security deal with the Solomon Islands, in which China offers to provide security to the small nation, in return for greater naval access, tensions have been stoked.
The New Zealand Government has acted very poorly in response to the Solomons negotiating this deal, lashing out at Honiara and at Beijing, and loudly repeating the talking points of Canberra and Washington in a way that will also ramp up tensions.
In doing so, New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific looks increasingly neocolonial and threatening. This country has a long history of regarding Pacific neighbours as our “backyard” and “sphere of influence”. And this is exactly the sort of language that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta are now blatantly using – not a million miles from how Russia continues to talk about Ukraine.
New Zealand and Australia are unlikely to invade the Solomons in the way that Russia has invaded the Ukraine, but it’s not impossible. There are already hawks in both countries ramping up pressure to take a heavy approach. In Australia, some commentators talk about the need for military “regime change”. In New Zealand, the hawkish Anne Marie Brady is making dire warnings about threats of Chinese military aggression towards Australia and New Zealand, especially with the assertion that the Solomons government is corrupt, and its’ deal risks us being “cut off and encircled by the [Chinese] navy”.
Unfortunately, New Zealand’s neocolonial approach has long been in evidence in the Solomons, which is a country that has had its resources depleted and is increasingly regarded as a pawn to be used by bigger powers. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy examples is the 2015 expose by Nicky Hager, using leaked CIA files, which showed how New Zealand had a spy operation against the Solomon Islands Government and politicians.
Now our Prime Minister talks about the threat of China’s “militarisation of the region”. Isn’t this hypocritical on our part?
Today Keith Locke, the former foreign affairs spokesperson for the Greens, makes an important point in a column about peace in the Pacific: “if our PM is really against militarisation she should point the finger first at Australia for its planned purchase of several new nuclear powered submarines, some to be based on Australia’s Pacific coast, or the US for expanding its military presence on Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia. Jacinda could also explain why her own government is spending $2.3 billion on six new P8 surveillance planes, optimized for anti-submarine warfare and armed with missiles.”
We need to be careful not to overreact to China’s involvement in the Pacific. The small islands desperately need aid and security support, and it would be wrong for New Zealand to deny them this or discourage its receipt, especially when New Zealand has been so miserly in offering assistance.
The over-reaction to the notion that China is setting up a naval base in the Pacific also needs to be kept in check – especially since the Solomons Government itself deny that this is happening. The New Zealand Government’s own Defence Assessment report, released in December, was somewhat feverish, and arguably irresponsible, in warning of the huge dangers of a base being established in the region by “a state that does not share New Zealand’s values and security interests” – i.e. China. Meanwhile the US continues its own military base building in the region.
And as Keith Locke writes today, “Every now and again there’s a scare story about China trying to establish a military base in the South Pacific.” He explains how in 2018 it “was Vanuatu’s turn” to be the target of Australian fears that they were welcoming the Chinese navy, and then in 2021 it was Kiribati that was wrongly pointed to as a future naval base.
Ultimately New Zealand needs to get reacquainted – just as Russia does – with the concept of “national sovereignty”. New Zealand sometimes pays lip service to this in terms of Pacific countries, but then interferes and acts as a paternalistic bully with talk of “our backyard”. Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has been right to denounce our interference as “very insulting”.
As Pacific foreign aid expert Josie Pagani writes today, New Zealand simply needs to engage to the Pacific region, not with more military and tough words, but by building relationships and offering more generous aid – something that has been sorely missing from New Zealand’s approach for some time.
Here’s what Pagani says: “Why doesn’t New Zealand double its aid to the Solomons to grow new businesses, and more jobs in legitimate industries?… We need to out-compete China. Not just yell ‘Get Off My Lawn’ at them. Pacific leaders are challenging us to move on from the old welfare model of aid, and offer something the Chinese can’t. Relationships.”
In its current dealings with Honiara and Beijing, Wellington seems set on following the directives of Canberra and Washington. But a smarter and more responsible approach might be to realise that New Zealand has a special capacity that neither Canberra nor Washington has – an ability to talk with the Chinese Government. Currently Australia’s diplomatic relations have been frozen, leaving them unable to do anything other than megaphone diplomacy with combative condemnations.
New Zealand need not go down the same path. It’s relationship with Beijing is good enough that it can initiate a dialogue about the situation in the Solomons and the wider Pacific. This makes it vital that Wellington doesn’t just join in the escalation of tensions. But it’s already looking like that might be too late.