Peters and partnership in the Pacific: an issue which gelled with Aust policy-makers

Foreign Minister Winston Peters  didn’t have much  luck when he  visited  Canberra  for  his  six-monthly  talks with his  Australian counterpart,  Julie Bishop.  Peters  was  no  sooner winging  his way homewards  when Bishop was  gone from  her ministry and finding a seat somewhere  in the distant back benches  of the Liberal Party, a victim of  the Turnbull massacre.

And  Peters’  message   on the Australian government’s  treatment of Kiwis being deported, although not yet found guilty of crimes in an Australian court of law,   also echoed  hollowly  in the  hallways  of  the Federal Parliament.

But there  was  one line from  NZ’s  Foreign  Minister  which did  resonate   among key policy-makers  in  Canberra.  It  was this:

“There has never been a time since 1945 that it has been so important that we work together to influence peace and stability in the Pacific, helping those nations to improve their prosperity”.

 We  may hear  more of this   at the forthcoming annual  meeting of  Pacific Forum in Nauru.

Peters  has  made it a priority, in his second  term as Foreign Minister, to achieve a  re-set  of  NZ’s foreign  policy in  the Pacific. Note the emphasis  in this passage  he used  in Canberra:

“Our purpose  here today  is to state how important and productive the Australia-NZ relationship remains,regardless of what differences we may have. And to also emphasise the importance of Australia and NZ working together in our Pacific neighbourhood at a time of remarkable, sometimes alarming, change”.

 Peters  didn’t  spell  out just what  the  “alarming  change”  stems  from but  one doesn’t need to be  a genius to get the drift  from the  following passage:

 “In this age of global power-struggle, and in this age of disinformation, we must cling to the heavily under-valued currency of loyalty, friendship, and of trust. These are values Australia and NZ have forged from our long running adherence to democracy. Values which were forged on the battlefields of Gallipoli and in the following conflicts which our descendants endured.Values which continue to be forged today by cooperation and mutual engagement in around the world.

“Cooperation like our joint work to build police capacity in the Pacific Islands; our work on anti-smuggling; our advocacy for the environment and our oceans; and our emergency response cooperation following natural disasters.

“We co-operate closely on the international stage in fora such as the UN and the Commonwealth on issues such as the use of the death penalty, women’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities. These very principles and values of partnership and which will hold true to the challenges we will face in the future. And the best way to conquer those challenges ahead is by working together.”

Peters   contends working with Australia is  central to  the combined interests in the Pacific region when the tides of external interest are rising, not ebbing.

He  notes that  in  his second stint as a foreign minister  there are contrasts since  his previous  term.

“One is that Pacific island countries have developed a much greater sense of sovereignty and independence in recent years. Their leaders have also options that were not available before – options about whom to seek development assistance from, and on what terms, and options about whose models of development to follow.

“That throws up challenges and choices that Pacific nations did not have to manage, even just a few years ago. Against this backdrop, our eyes are wide open to the fact that we cannot take our influence in the Pacific for granted.

“We need to be clear that in seeking to use our influence for the better, we are not about trying to control our Pacific neighbours, economically or politically. Instead, we want to work with Pacific countries to support their independence and self-sufficiency.We cannot do this alone.

“As we seek ourselves to be more present in the Pacific, Australia and NZ need to work together to bring other partners in as well. And the time to bring in those other partners is ideal. Many other countries are recalibrating their approach towards the Pacific. And the driver of that recalibration is through a strategic lens”.

Peters   told his  Canberra  audience NZ has  reviewed its defence policy settings. In  July the government released the Strategic Defence Policy Statement. It describes the significant changes in New Zealand’s (and Australia’s) strategic environment that needed a response.

Challenges once conceived as “future trends” have become today’s realities. Great power competition is back, rules and norms that defined the global and regional order are under pressure, and the impacts of climate change are tangible.

The Strategic Defence Policy Statement informs the military equipment choices NZ makes over the next few months as  the Defence Capability Plan is updated.

“Already, we have made one major acquisition decision. We will replace our six P3 Orions, with four state-of-the-art P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. NZ also has a range of defence platforms approaching the end of their life, not least the airlift capability embodied in our 1960s-era C-130 Hercules. And there is no graver decision that a government can take than putting its men and women in uniform in harm’s way”.

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