China’s shadow looms over Peters’ Pacific visit


Foreign Minister Winston Peters (third from left) led a high-powered delegation on a whistle-stop tour of three Pacific Island nations amid China’s growing clout in the region (Facebook Photo)

Venu Menon
July 10,2024

Geopolitics lurked beneath the surface of the three-nation Pacific tour by the high-level delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters last week.

Unlike his previous sojourn in the region, this time Peters was accompanied by key Opposition figures as well. The delegation consisted of Minister of Customs Casey Costello; Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee (FADTC) Tim van de Molen; FADTC members Damien O’Connor and Jenny Salesa from Labour, and Green MP Teanau Tuiono.

Given the “strategic challenges” in the region, the delegation’s broad political mix ensures the legacy of the visit runs across party lines, with the foreign policy ramifications borne collectively.

Solomon Islands and Nauru are pivotal in Pacific geopolitics, especially after their withdrawal of support to Taiwan and formal alliance with China.

Solomon Islands has been the centre of diplomatic attention by regional powers in the aftermath of its shift in allegiance to China in 2019.

Winston Peters arriving in the Solomon Islands (Facebook Photo)

The United States, Australia, Japan and China have all reached out to newly elected Prime Minister Jeremiah Manele.

Manele, unlike his predecessor, appears to be taking a soft line with the West while staying steadfastly within the ambit of China’s influence.

Foreign Minister Peters has broadly described New Zealand’s relationships in the Pacific as “fundamental to our foreign policy” and expressed the determination “to continue strengthening them.”

But Peters’ visit to Nauru, a recipient of Chinese largesse, has not inhibited the Micronesian nation’s President, David Adeang, from openly endorsing China.

“It has much to contribute to the world and, of course, to small island developing states. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to try and transform Nauru with the support of a country as large as China,” President Adeang says, justifying Nauru’s shift towards China.

Peters has tactfully kept out of his diplomatic radar any reference to the presence on the island of Australia’s Regional Processing Centres for detaining asylum seekers, which have drawn flak in the media.

Peters’ Niue visit, which marked the final leg of the delegation’s Pacific trip, saw pledges of longterm public sector support with none of the geopolitical undertow apparent in the Solomons and Nauru.

Peters’ Pacific visit contrasts sharply with his four-day tour of Polynesia earlier this year.  His bilateral meetings with the leaders of Tonga, Cook Islands and Samoa thinly camouflaged the concern among Pacific leaders about New Zealand’s foreign policy autonomy, particularly in the context of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US.

That visit came in the wake of international concern that China was muddying the waters of the Pacific following its security pact with the Solomon Islands.

China’s push in the Pacific region has unleashed a flurry of counter-diplomatic activity, with the US hosting a Pacific leaders’ summit and opening an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a gap of three decades.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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