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Megaphone diplomacy doesnt work but NZ must change its approach to China

I have been watching the diplomacy effort underway in the Pacific this last week as China begins to assert itself on the cusp of a new Australian Government entering the fray. The calls for our own Foreign Minister to have jumped on a plane and do what Senator Penny Wong has been doing first in the Solomons and then in Fiji. So lets just in unpack a few things. First of all China has wanted to make a Pacific play for some time and given the clear signal from the then Australian Opposition was giving that should they form Government they would place a closer emphasis on strengthening Pacific ties.

Its no wonder China rushed into the region with a draft agreement that looked like a goodie bag catching all the lollies because they probably thought they should make their move and strike while the iron is hot. Lets be clear here the diplomacy effort undertaken by Australia the last week is in stark difference to the ongoing diplomatic play of New Zealand – for the last nine years Australia’s plan in the Pacific was megaphone diplomacy sketched through the prism of aid and forgive me for saying this but it kind of felt like a colonial master attempting to impose their view.

Frankly the Pacific are over that. The opposite is true of New Zealand because those long held relationships and partnerships have been built over many years. New Zealand is also home to one of the largest Pacific populations in the world outside of the islands and, unlike Australia, the Pacific culture and whanau flows through our Parliament and Government. In other words those bonds are much stronger.

The Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta was right not to get on a plane just because the Opposition thought it was a good headline, and be clear that the first opportunity would be when leaders gather for the Pacific Forum. Why? Because we were not desperate. China. However, is another case in point altogether. There attempt at a strategic play, for the time being, failed. While China’s Foreign Minister was boot scooting across the region from one Island to another he somehow expected that he would be able to do a deal.

By the time he arrived in Fiji and met with the Prime Minister the writing was on the wall – it hadn’t quite worked out. It was left to the Chinese Ambassador to say as much. But here is the thing – China misjudged Pacific nations; gone are the days where they are backwaters that receive little recognition for the challenges they face and enter the new Pacific whanau who are stronger and much more sophisticated in what they specifically want. While China was pushing trade and regional security what the Islands wanted was more effective action on Climate Change – who can forget the President of Tuvalu standing waist deep in the sea doing a presentation to the international conference on climate change talking about rising sea levels. But more than that – the Pacific leaders know how to play the game and they have the super powers exactly where they want them. Australia and New Zealand are peripheral actors and intermediaries to what is really going on and that is the ongoing tussle between the last two remaining super powers, the United States and China.

The real story in town is what to do about China and with two way trade exceeding more than $30 billion between our two countries the question is – as we pick a side what will China do? In the last few days it appears, for the time being, we have firmly picked that side. In a joint statement released by the Whitehouse between the US and NZ it says: “We oppose unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that run counter to the rules-based international order, particularly UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” and “We jointly recognize the importance of a strong and unified Association of Southeast Asian Nations to an open, inclusive, stable, and prosperous Indo-Pacific,”

And now we wait to see what China will do – are we to experience the same treatment as Australia has? Will we see trade begin to dry up? Actually the timing is not as bad as we might think because it now forces us to diversify away from our reliance on China and build new export markets – South East Asia, Latin America and Europe are all beckoning.

Matthew Tukaki is the former Chair of the National Maori Authority and was Australias Representative to the United Nations Global Compact between 2009-2013. Tukaki was also the first elected representative to the Governing Board of the UNGC in 2013.


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