Defence Minister Ron Mark, when restating the government’s Pacific Reset at the multi-national Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, explained a shift in regional and operational imperatives.
“The Reset is both a vision, and a commitment to lift our ambition as part of the Pacific community. It is about changing our mind-set toaddress the increasingly complex issues in our region. It emphasises both what we are doing in the region, as well as how we operate. Foremost, it is about genuine partnership and mutual respect. In many ways the Pacific region is where NZ matters most and can have a more positive impact. It is our neighbourhood, and where we most certainly act locally.
“Through our Strategic Defence Policy Statement, we raised the priority placed on our Defence Force’s ability to operate in the Pacific to the same level as New Zealand’s territory, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.”
The Defence Capability Plan fleshed out this policy shift with details of new spending on ships, aircraft and surveillance by satellite and remotely-piloted vehicles.
In principle, the spending will help confront what Mark and others have called the greatest security challenge – climate change and the threats likely to come from this in a clamour for resources.
But there is a sub-text: confronting China. So far the expansion of Chinese interests in the region have been relatively constrained – a new dock in Samoa and another in Vanuatu with lesser “investments” offered to the Cook Islands and Niue.
Foreign minister Winston Peters scored another increase in NZ’s official development assistance in the latest budget. As a consequence, NZ’s Office of Development Assistance spending will lift from $73.2m in 2018/19 to $82.2m in 2019/2020. That’s no mean feat compared with the ODA spending of $56.8m in 2014/15.
But will NZ need to paddle the waka faster to keep up with developments?
Australian PM Scott Morrison announced earlier this year a $A 2bn basket of loans and grants to South Pacific govt to boost infrastructure development. Recently he was in the Solomon Islands where he announced a further $A250m on improvements to infrastructure.
Pacific governments are learning the cost of Chinese “investment”. Vanuatu, for example, received a loan to develop a port at Santo in the north. This was a major facility during World War II built by the US but little has happened since.
Japan has provided a loan to be repaid over 40 years with a 10-year period of grace and an interest rate of 0.55%. The Chinese loan has a five-year grace period but has to be repaid over 15 years with interest at 2.5%.