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NZ risks 'strategic nincompoop' tag with current Pacific policy, says Chatham House analyst

Tuesday 27th February 2018

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New Zealand risks being seen as a "strategic nincompoop, at best" if it persists with attempts to bind Pacific Island countries into the New Zealand and Australian economies using mechanisms such as the PACER Plus free trade agreement, an analyst with global think-tank Chatham House told a high-powered foreign policy conference in Wellington.

While such an approach may be intended to curb the potential influence of new actors in Oceania, such as China, it risked having the opposite effect, said Cleo Paskal, a Canada-based Chatham House associate fellow in energy, environment and resources policy, 

Her comments come just days before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney before making a tour of the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga early next week.

Ardern addressed the same conference in her first major foreign policy speech, saying New Zealand's international reputation was for speaking with "credibility" and acting with "decency". 

On relations with Pacific Island nations, Ardern said "we can do better and we will" to assist countries "where prosperity is threatened by environmental issues and encroachment on fish stocks, as much as by size and isolation". 

Foreign Minister Winston Peters would be outlining the government's thinking on Pacific relations in a speech to the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, on Thursday, ahead of Ardern's meeting with Turnbull on Friday.

However, Paskal argued that one of the centrepieces of Australian and New Zealand policy in Oceania - the PACER Plus free trade agreement - amounted to the kind of manipulation of Pacific Island states that New Zealanders often accused the United States of bringing to bear on New Zealand.

The "incredibly peculiar deal" had been reached by what many had described as "bullying and chequebook diplomacy", with Fiji and Papua New Guinea pulling out, Tonga threatening to leave, and the Federated States of Micronesia - US protectorates - not turning up to last June's signing ceremony.

"Objectively, there are few, if any, good reasons for Pacific Island countries to ratify PACER Plus," Paskal told a session of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs conference, which was entitled 'Asia-Pacific: Game of Thrones in our Own Backyard'. 

"If we're talking about moral leadership, you really need to take a look at the reality what's going on in the trade negotiations with Pacific Island partners," she said.

She warned that such efforts could backfire and drive Pacific nations into the arms of soft loans from China and other rivals in the region rather than deepen ties to Australasia.

That also risked reducing New Zealand's value to the 'Five Eyes' intelligence-gathering partnership with the US, UK, Canada and Australia, in which New Zealand was tasked with being the primary source of reliable information about the Pacific.

"In the long term, the people of the PICs (Pacific Island countries) will suffer disproportionately, create regional instability, contribute to global disruption, giving openings to China and others, and will fundamentally make New Zealand like a strategic nincompoop at best," she said.

"Times are too tense at the moment for such an obvious and avoidable own goal."

(BusinessDesk)

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