Following on from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the Solomon Islands early last week, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters also paid a visit to the Melanesian country on a two-day trip. While in Honiara, Peters signed a new Statement of Partnership with the Solomon Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Jeremiah Manele. The agreement seeks to further strengthen the relationship between the two countries with a focus on facilitating improvements to the Solomon Islands’ economic growth, inclusive development, internal peace and security, and resilience to natural disasters.
Peters also announced that New Zealand will support the creation of the Solomon Islands Airport Corporation Limited. This new venture will see the Solomon Islands government take ownership of all international and domestic airports in the country, and take responsibility for the operation and management of these assets. Wellington had previously assisted in the development of the airport at Munda, on the island of New Georgia, to enable the region to receive international flights, with the hope of improving the attractiveness of the region for tourism, in order to try and ease the Solomon Islands’ economic reliance on logging.
Peters’ trip also included a visit to Vanuatu, where he discussed improved access for to the Recognized Seasonal Employer scheme with Vanuatu’s government, an assistance package for those Ni-Vanuatu who were forced to relocate due to the eruption of the Ambae volcano, and a renewed aid package of $56.3 million over the next five years.
While Australia has its “Pacific Step-Up” policy, Peters’ trip to the Solomon Island and Vanuatu forms part of New Zealand’s own “Pacific Reset.” Both policies are designed to make a noticeable re-engagement within the region in the face of increased strategic competition from China. For New Zealand a foreign policy with a primary focus on the Pacific is a recognition of its limitations as a (relatively) small state within the wider Indo-Pacific, but also as a state with the capabilities to hold significant influence in its immediate region.
One of the primary drivers of New Zealand’s foreign policy is its shared regional identity as a Polynesian country. Around 15 percent of New Zealand’s population is Maori, and the government makes a significant effort to incorporate te reo Maori (the Maori language) and Maori cultural practices in both its internal and external communications. The country also has a significant number of people of other Pacific heritages. This forms a vital pillar of New Zealand’s regional credibility as it provides a demonstration of the familial and cultural links the country has with its Pacific neighbors.
New Zealand also recognizes that it shares many contemporary security challenges with the Pacific, in particular the potential destabilizing effects of climate change. New Zealand’s 2018 Strategic Defense Policy Statement made prominent note of climate change’s impact on regional security, and how the effects of climate change have the ability to intersect with a number of regional development and social issues to adversely impact the region. In recognition of this, the Defense Department also carried out an assessment of its capabilities to respond throughout the Pacific to the array of potential impacts of various climate change related challenges.
In his speech at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, New Zealand’s minister of defense, Ron Mark, identified Wellington’s strategic zone as being one that extends from the South Pole to the Equator, and indicated that it was a priority for the New Zealand Defense Forces to be able to operate in the South Pacific at the same capacity as they can in New Zealand territory, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica.
This is an ambitious outlook for New Zealand, but one that is grounded in its principled ideals of regional engagement and responsibility, as well as a hard-headed acknowledgement that regional security and increased prosperity are in its own national interests. For a state such as New Zealand that lacks significant hard power, there is a reliance on its reputation in order to project influence. Trust becomes its most important asset. In the South Pacific the means that Wellington needs to internalize the concerns of its neighbors, and be able to respond with credibility and decency.
Peters’ trip to the Solomon Island and Vanuatu — as well as his February visits to Fiji, Tuvalu, and Kiribati — were part of Wellington’s continual furnishing of trust in the face of increased regional competition. The renewed interest in the South Pacific by the great powers is creating both significant opportunity as well as some instability. This was made apparent by the Shangri-La Dialogue holding a discussion on “strategic interests and competition in the South Pacific,” the first time such a session had been included on the agenda. This indicates that New Zealand’s foreign minister will be spending a lot more time travelling the South Pacific, consolidating relationships and implementing the ideals of Wellington’s regional reset.