Perizat RISBEK KIZI
On June 13, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a meeting via video with New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. The meeting was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Wellington. The ministers reaffirmed their desire to develop China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership and to promote humanitarian exchanges and practical cooperation in trade, economy and other fields. The parties also exchanged views on international and regional issues of mutual interest.
The main topic was security in the Pacific
During the meeting, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta stressed the importance of engagement taking place in a manner that advances Pacific priorities, is supportive of Pacific regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum, and addresses the significant challenges in the region.
Noting that China respects New Zealand’s traditional ties with Pacific Island countries, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is willing to work with New Zealand to expand trilateral or multilateral cooperation to jointly build an open, inclusive, unified and cooperative South Pacific region.
The Solomon Islands in the spotlight
The words of the Prime Minister of New Zealand came amid growing concerns about the strengthening of China’s role in the Pacific region. In April this year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that China and the Solomon Islands had signed a framework agreement on security cooperation.
Against the backdrop of these developments, Australia has decided to extend the deployment of its armed forces to the Solomon Islands until at least May 2023 (New Zealand sent troops to the Solomon Islands at the request of the country’s government at the end of 2021 after riots broke out in the country’s capital, Honiara). Moreover, on May 31, Wellington and Washington, in a joint statement by the leaders of the two countries, expressed concern over “growing strategic competition that threatens to undermine existing institutions and arrangements in the region” and a possible security threat to the United States and New Zealand due to China’s military presence in the Pacific, which “will fundamentally change the strategic balance in the region.”
Details of the final agreement were not released, but Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the agreement calls for China to help the Solomon Islands maintain public order and deal with natural disasters and does not pose a risk to other countries.
The Global Times wrote that the statement showed the US was treating the Pacific as its “backyard” and warned Wellington was “leaning towards” Washington in order to help the US maintain hegemony in the region. China’s ambassador to New Zealand also separately warned Wellington not to take its relationship with Beijing for granted, The Australian reports.
The reaction of American politicians
According to US State Department spokesman Ned Price, cooperation agreements can be opaque and hasty. The diplomat believes that the spread of China’s methods to ensure its own security in the South Pacific will not help the countries of the region, but will only fuel security tensions. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “China is the only country that has both the desire to reformat the world order and the diplomatic, and military and technological capabilities to do so.” Thus, American politicians opposed separate treaties and supported the idea of openness.
The difficult balance between the US and China
On June 10, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was on a working visit to Australia, said her country would welcome “the multi-stakeholder partnerships established by Australia, including QUAD and AUKUS, as long as their activities are in line with regional values, remain transparent and serve the purpose of maintaining peace and stability.” “New Zealand does not need to be involved in such partnerships as we have a strong bilateral relationship in the region,” Ardern added.
Additionally, on June 11, New Zealand Minister of Defence Peeni Henare said that Pacific Island nations have the freedom to make their own decisions about cooperation with China, as Beijing seeks closer military ties with the strategically important region.
Perhaps this change in rhetoric suggests that New Zealand wants to balance the interests of the two powers. Thus, while Washington seeks to strengthen relations with its allies and forge a more cohesive coalition against China under President Joe Biden, New Zealand seeks to strike an increasingly complex balance between the two countries in line with its own national interests.