Indigenous Imperialist?

THE APPOINTMENT OF NANAIA MAHUTA as New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister was hailed as a triumph for indigenous peoples everywhere. Now, at last, the foreign policy of Aotearoa-New Zealand could move beyond the very white and very male perspectives of her predecessors. (A group which, sadly, includes Winston Peters.)

As the Māori development minister who commissioned the controversial He Puapua Report, Mahuta gave every appearance of wanting to bring a new and radical perspective to the task of representing a state born of, and still very much a prey to, the historical processes of colonialism and imperialism.

As late as November 2021, Mahuta was still signalling that hers was a perspective distinct from those of most of New Zealand’s friends and allies:

“Our connection to the Pacific is reflected through language, peoples, ocean, history, culture, politics, and shared interests. Together, we share kaitiaki responsibilities for Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa — the Blue Ocean Continent. This concept is enduring and inter-generational: what we do for our children today, sets the course for our tamariki and mokopuna. When we consider livelihoods we speak to intergenerational objectives.”

Set alongside her earlier statements suggesting a measure of diplomatic separation between New Zealand’s perspectives and those of its “Five Eyes” partners, Mahuta’s remarks to the NZ Institute of International Affairs continued to sustain the hope that she remained determined to give her country’s “independent foreign policy” a decidedly indigenous inflection.

It was not to be. When push comes to shove in the Pacific, New Zealand will always find itself among the pushed and the shoved. No matter how fervently factions in the NZ Defence Force and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (MFAT) might wish it, this country is unlikely to ever be included among the major-league pushers and the shovers. In the five-fingered Anglo-Saxon fist, New Zealand’s is the “pinky” finger – attached to, bur wielding no power over the much larger and stronger fingers of the USA, UK, Canada and Australia.

But, if New Zealand possesses insufficient heft to push upwards, or shove outwards, it is regarded by its big Anglo-Saxon brothers as having more than enough power to pushdownwards on the micro-states of the Pacific. The countries it describes, condescendingly, as living in New Zealand’s “back-yard”.

In a division of diplomatic labour indistinguishable from the imperialistic carve-ups of the Nineteenth Century, Australia has arrogated unto itself the responsibility for keeping the independent nations of Melanesia in line. New Zealand’s job is to do the same in Polynesia.

Like a couple of pith-helmeted district officers of the British Raj, the two “White Dominions” of the Southern Hemisphere are positioned side-by-side on the imperial verandah, sipping their gin-and-tonics, and keeping a watchful eye on the “natives” of the Blue Ocean Continent.

Clearly, it was too much to hope that Mahuta might balk at this grotesque assignment. That she might simply refuse to act as the Five Eyes’ policewoman in the South Pacific. Sadly, Mahuta’s response to the Solomon Island’s decision to sign a security agreement with the People’s Republic of China has been everything her Anglo-Saxon bosses could wish for.

Not only have she and her fellow Labour Māori Caucus member, Defence Minister Peeni Henare, flown off to Fiji to sign the “Duavata Partnership”, a beefed-up climatic, economic and defence deal with the Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, but Mahuta has also introduced a whole new term to the strategic vocabulary – “Regional Sovereignty”.

Speculating that the actions of the Solomon Island’s government might necessitate a bringing forward of the scheduled meeting of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in June, Mahuta declared:

“It’s my view that several of the Pacific nations will want greater clarity from the Solomons around the nature of those agreements, and the extent to which the sovereign interests of Solomons may well impact on the regional sovereignty and security interests of the Pacific.”

Clearly, it is Mahuta’s view (and presumably the view of her advisors at MFAT) that while the Solomon Islands, as an independent nation state and member of the United Nations, possesses, along with all other states, “sovereign interests” to advance and protect according to its own best judgement; the “Blue Ocean Continent”, which, as a mere figure of speech, cannot claim the rights of an independent nation state, nor become a member of the United Nations, nevertheless possesses regional sovereign interests of its own.

Further implied, in this new coinage of Mahuta’s, is that “regional sovereignty” trumps national sovereignty. Bluntly: Honiara proposes, but the PIF (i.e. Australia and New Zealand) disposes.

Not only is this concept new, but it is also profoundly pernicious. With the undoubted backing of New Zealand’s Five Eyes “partners”, Mahuta is asserting the right of the Solomon Island’s neighbours to determine its foreign and defence policies.

A century-and-a-half ago, at the high point of the Age of Imperialism, such an overt curtailment of national sovereignty would have been described as transforming what had formerly been an independent territory into a “protectorate” of one or the other of the great imperial powers. In the Solomon’s case, the “protectors” are the five English-speaking nations which have, since the end of the Second World War, looked upon the Pacific Ocean as an Anglo-Saxon lake.

So much for the “Pacific resilience” about which Mahuta boasted in her speech to the NZIIA last November. New Zealand’s foreign minister is openly participating in the restoration of Anglo-Saxon imperialism across the “Blue Ocean Continent” – for no better reason than to keep her country’s largest and most important trading partner out of it.

China will draw its own conclusions. And so, too, if it has any instinct for national self-preservation, will the Solomon Islands.


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