Red flags fly as China charms the Pacific; should New Zealand be worried?
Not for the first time NZ is competing for the affections of the Pacific as China cements its influence. Experts say it’s a critical time for diplomacy, writes Kevin Norquay.
We thought it was everlasting love.
We were nice, we gave the Pacific Islands presents, homes, jobs, and All Black jerseys, we told them how beautiful they were to help their tourism, and now they’re all eyes for China.
New Zealand is wondering where it all went wrong, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi turns heads across the Pacific, in an eight-nation charm offensive of our nearest and dearest.
Are we about to be put in the friend zone, thanks to a diplomatic Flash Harry with money, charm, and a deep empathy for developing countries?
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It’s such a big deal, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and US President Joe Biden aired shared concern about China’s moves in the region, at a rare White House rendezvous this week.
It’s such a big deal, that foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused Ardern of joining a “disinformation” campaign to discredit China.
It’s such a big deal, newly-minted Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong was in Fiji within a week of the Australia election, promoting more ambitious efforts to fight global warming, to low-lying island nations fretting over rising sea levels.
So it’s all happening, and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta should do something, her political opponents say.
But is it, and should she?
After all, Ambassador Wang Xiaolong told the New Zealand China Council this week: “NZ and China would like peace, stability and prosperity to continue in the Asia-Pacific region, our common home. Neither would like to see tensions and instability, let alone conflicts or wars in this neighbourhood.
“All is not rosy, however. Indeed, the relationship has got its fair share of challenges, the foremost of which is the way we address the differences between us.”
At one end, diplomatic, academic and trade specialists tell Stuff the equivalent of “nothing new to see here” – China has long had a presence in the region.
At the other, there’s the more concerning - and less widely expressed - view that owing China favours will turn Pacific Island nations into the equivalent of a modern fiefdom, crippling already fragile democracies.
What IS new, says former New Zealand ambassador to Beijing, Chris Elder, is Wang Yi is the highest-ranking Chinese official to have visited the Pacific Islands; he is not a politician, nor is he part of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee.
Wang visited eight countries in 10 days, a trip security experts said upped the tempo of China’s push for influence in the region, a push replicated in developing countries across the globe.
At the same time, Ardern was meeting Biden, who stated in his first speech to congress after his election: “We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”
The US has about 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories. China - with the world’s largest navy - has only one overseas base, in Djibouti, on the Red Sea. Turkey, the United Kingdom, Russia and France all have more.
China: empathy with developing nations
One thing New Zealand is unlikely to manage, is to outcharm China. It has more money, and, some argue, a more empathetic approach to forging cross-nation bonds, though those efforts come with strings attached.
As well, Mahuta has no mandate to meddle in the politics of sovereign states. She can simply put the New Zealand viewpoint, and trust in a long and warm relationship over decades.
Her stance has been that New Zealand intended to be a “respectful, predictable and consistent” partner in its engagement with China.
New Zealand China Council chair John McKinnon, who was twice ambassador to Beijing, also touts a softly-softly approach.
“The important point is that China has been present in the Pacific for quite some time,” he says.
“There are elements which keep changing and evolving, but it's just important to bear in mind that this is not something which has just come out of nowhere.
“More countries are going to have an interest in these parts of the world. Some like the United States and China are more prominent than others, and that will always be the case.
”The Pacific countries have to make their own choices, and obviously they're in the throes of doing so.”
China has been in the business of helping developing nations since the late 1940s, says Elder.
It went about offering a helping hand in a way that proved more palatable to developing countries. More, “what help do you want?” when the western version of aid tended to be “you need this”.
“It’s part of their foreign policy that all countries are equal, so whenever a Pacific leader goes to Beijing they get the full honour guard and access to all the right people, and they feel pretty good about it,” he says.
“China is rolling out the same sort of initiatives across the world. We shouldn't think they’ve suddenly focussed on the Pacific.”
Desire to be a global force
China wants to be an international force in a way it hasn’t previously, Elder says.
“That is to shape international structures and institutions … it keeps wanting to change the rules of the game, and to a degree that’s fair because the rules of most of the games have been put together by a small group of wealthy western countries.
“China has the choice of saying ‘yeah, we’ll go with those’ or saying ‘we’ll join up, but we’ll change them around to suit us and other developing countries better.’
“It’s still a developing country, and its poverty levels are still high. It does have common causes with other developing countries.”
Initially, China used foreign affairs as a Silk Road to gaining global influence in the United Nations, where even the smallest nation has the same voting power.
Now the long game appears: become a world power, to engage in an arm wrestle with the US. That power struggle could well be good for the Pacific, Elder surmises.
“The Chinese apparent grab for attention has focussed attention on island countries and the problems of those countries. In areas like climate change that is a good thing,” he says.
“In a sense to create a bidding war between the US - who see themselves as an indispensable ally - and China, who want to be seen that way in the future.”
Pacific nations declined to sign up to a sweeping regional economic and security deal proposed by China on Monday, when Wang met ministers from Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Niue and Vanuatu.
Among items agreed on were economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic, and new centres for agriculture and disaster.
Security remained outside the tent. But concerns don’t stop with security, there are fears communist China could undermine transparent democracy in Pacific nations, as they scramble to please their rich benefactor.
Deals with China have strings attached
China does not invest in small island nations for fun. They must have resources, or the will to support China for China’s global political interests, Associated Professor in International Business at Wellington School of Business and Government, Victoria University of Wellington. Dr Hongzhi Gao says.
Born in China, Gao promotes knowledge and understanding of contemporary China via the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre.
Exports to the massive Chinese market are crucially important across the Pacific and that, too, tilts how China is seen, and reacted to, he says.
A recent Solomon Islands-China security pact, reached over the objections of Australia, the US, Japan and New Zealand, has raised fears of an enhanced Chinese military presence in the Pacific.
Until then, security had not been a forefront problem for the region, Gao says; China had centred its efforts on developing resources and infrastructure.
“Countries have a need for infrastructure development and those needs are not being met by the likes of the World Bank.
“If those needs haven't been met it opens the way for Chinese management, Chinese labour, materials, Chinese companies and Chinese ownership to come into these countries.
“It's a typical approach by China going out to invest, not necessarily to help the locals - it is communicated something like ‘I can do something for you, what can you do for me?’
“But now I think the game has changed. China is not satisfied with only providing economic partnership with those countries, they want to play more of a role in security. It’s changing but it's a long process.
“Whether those countries are willing to compromise on their national security to give China influence, the sovereign states have to think about what is best for them.
“Whether they allow China to play a role in their security, it's about trust – do they trust China to do that for them?
“It’s a critical moment”
Traditionally, those countries have been looked after by Australia and New Zealand for their security.
“It's a critical moment, in the balance. So Australia and New Zealand have every right to say ‘sit down, have a chat about what are your needs really, do you have any concern about security?
“We have to be reassuring (island) countries that there's no need for you to have a security agreement with China because that's not the compromise you have to make to get your economic support from China.”
The words compromise, balancing act, diplomacy, respect, surface time and again when talking about the Pacific, the influence of New Zealand and Australia regionally, and that of global powers US and China.
“We sell a lot of products to China and you then earn a lot of money from the Chinese market, when the Chinese governments or China ask something from New Zealand and Australia you have to compromise,” Gao says.
“You have to show you can work with China in some areas. You have to be prepared to do that.”
Working hand-in-hand with China is to run the risk of compromising democratic systems, Gao says.
Governmental transparency and a free news media is crucial.
“You would expect democracy will be compromised in those countries. You can trade, you can have a capital relationship for a specific purpose but a long term relationship has to be built upon common values,” he says.
“We need to encourage more private businesses to go to those countries … and make sure those countries know it's important to maintain a strong private sector.”
Changing world order, long-term view
Former Trade Minister (and Climate Change Minister) Tim Groser too pinpoints a changing world order where institutions set up by the western world are less important, and China is more important.
“This is as much about Australia’s and NZ’s relationships with China as it is about our relationships with the predominantly Polynesian and Micronesian countries of the Pacific,” he says.
“We have to take a long-term, measured and realistic view. China is both our countries’ largest trading partner and supports thousands of jobs as a consequence.
“China is already a global economic superpower and its military capabilities are being continually enhanced.
“Australia and New Zealand cannot ‘exclude’ China from this region, so we need to take their legitimate interests into account and develop a long and patient dialogue with Beijing on that basis.”
Chinese politics specialist Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University raises red flags of concern, saying New Zealand should be wary.
Setting up military installations in Oceania could serve to cut off the Pacific island developing nations, Australia, and New Zealand, from the US and others “thereby turning the region into a China-dominated vassal zone”.
“The Chinese Communist Party sponsors political interference activities in every state and territory of the Pacific, weakening already fragile political systems,” she says.
China had used its interference activities to gain access to militarily significant airfields and ports, she says.
China had provided weapons, military vehicles and vessels, uniforms, training, and military buildings to the military forces of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and the police forces of Vanuatu, and the Solomons.
It had sent several spy boats into the region in recent months, and the People’s Liberation Army’s Yuanwang space-tracking vessels deploy to the Pacific during missile and satellite launches, using Papeete and Suva as their base ports, she says.
How to battle the charm of China
So if New Zealand can’t compete with China for Pacific hearts and minds with charm, money, aid or infrastructure development, what weapons does it have?
Chris Elder touts a shared love of rugby, half jokingly.
“We have a very strong hand, because Auckland is the biggest Polynesian country in the world, there are a lot of links between the Pacific Island nations and New Zealand,” he says.
Let’s leave the last word to Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer at Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
“New Zealand’s soft power in the Pacific lies in its relationships with the Pacific; family connections; languages etc; the ability to find conversations in culturally appropriate ways – but we need to invest more; not money but time and trust.”
Have we left that investment too late?