The South Pacific, whether New Zealand admits it or not, is in our proverbial backyard as a country. We go there by the thousands every week for leisure, for work, to see family. Our culture and history are inextricably intertwined with the South Pacific. It is also important in terms of our political, economic and social well being. More than the near state of civil war in Egypt, more than the political upheaval in Russia or the drugs war in Latin America, the well being of our closest geographical neighbours is important to New Zealand.
New Zealand is as important to the South Pacific as it is to us. Thousands of New Zealanders go to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and so forth for holidays, supplying these small nations with a substantial income stream. The small military establishments of all of these countries – Fiji currently exempt because of its military dictatorship – all send their soldiers to train with the New Zealand Defence Force. The legal systems often need New Zealand aid and expertise when dealing with significant criminal cases and to act as an arbitrator in disputes.
But some days I feel that New Zealand does not invest nearly enough time helping our smaller neighbours develop and that we are outsourcing responsibility for keeping our own proverbial back yard in good order. This is leading to the development of a void that China and the United States are trying to fill.
Whilst I have no problems with either country being interested in the South Pacific, ultimately Chinese and American interests are potentially more influential in the region than its own interests. Chinese and American companies are interested in the natural resources to meet demand for their products and services, and establishing themselves as an influence on the Governments of these countries. Being small for obvious reasons they are reluctant to do anything that might jeopardise potentially billions of dollars worth of investments. But what about Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and so forth looking after the interests of Tongans, Samoans and Fijians, et al?
This is where New Zealand comes in. Having significant ties with all of these nations; a functional legal system and relatively transparent governance, New Zealand can without being antagonistic, provide a steadying hand in matters pertaining to the economy and environment; health and education; the law and governance. I have gone on in several prior articles on this blog about the hazards posed by potent Sino-American rivalries. I have mentioned the attempts by Chinese companies in Samoa to make the Samoan Government build developments that are not going to benefit Samoans.
Who does New Zealand really want to see dominating the South Pacific:
1) The South Pacific remains its own region with Pasifika remaining the major flavour.
2) Chinese influence with roads and other infrastructure being built for these countries, but none of the profits stay there and go back to China; Chinese companies exploit natural resources; Beijing supports questionable moves concerning loss of democracy and citizens rights.
3) Americana becomes the dominating flavour. Not an altogether bad thing since a degree of influence in how America views the South Pacific can be found in Wellington, but possibly too much emphasis on free trade and dismantling economic barriers.
4) A New Zealand or New Zealand/Australian flavour becomes the major influence, recognising the fact that New Zealand and Australia are the economically, and politically most powerful nations in the region, have large communities of nationals from the island nations.
I favour Options 1 and 4. I think with a firm New Zealand and/or Australian guarantee of support, a strong Pasifika flavour can take hold. It will require investing more than either Canberra or Wellington are doing so currently and for the investment to be better targetted at legal reform; environmental standards and education.
But are we prepared?