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Pacific resets: Gerald McGhie puts New Zealand's current policy in its historical context and suggests ways of improving co-ordination with the islands' countries.

In 1853 the governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, proposed to the Colonial Office a Federation of Pacific peoples under the guidance of New Zealand. Bishop Selwyn chipped in with a suggestion that saw New Zealand as the centre of a spiritual empire covering roughly the same area.

By the 1870s Grey's expansionist ideas had become an established part of New Zealand's political thought. (1) Increasing self-confidence, economic prosperity and what was seen as 'an alarming degree of foreign involvement' (2) in the Pacific led to New Zealand tirelessly pushing the case for the British government to acquire--or acquire for New Zealand--a controlling interest in the Pacific Islands. As Frank Corner said, 'in this flamboyant period, schemes of annexation were coupled with proposals for trading ventures and commercial exploitation'. (3) Premier Sir Julius Vogel, fearing intervention from other foreign powers, urged Britain to annex Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea, Tonga, Cook Islands, Rapa and the Kermadecs.

When the colonial power proved reluctant, Vogel tried to force their hand by promoting a Polynesian Trading Company sponsored by the New Zealand government. The terms of the scheme moved a Colonial Office official to comment that Vogel was 'the most audacious adventurer ever to have held power in a colony'. Perhaps the official had forgotten Sir Charles Napier. (4)

Prime Minister Seddon was the next major figure to advocate a strong Pacific role for New Zealand. He wanted Samoa, but his hopes were dashed in 1899, a date which Seddon saw as Britain's 'betrayal', when the British government renounced its rights in Samoa in favour of Germany and America. In 1900 the British government finally refused New Zealand's request that responsibility for Fiji should be entrusted to New Zealand. Thus New Zealand's scheme for a Pacific Federation became impracticable.

The period up to 1900 could well be seen as New Zealand's first policy 'Set' in the Pacific. It could be characterised as a shareholder/proprietorial approach to the area. Little change occurred from 1900 until after the outbreak of war in 1914, when Britain asked New Zealand to seize German Samoa as 'a great and urgent Imperial service'. New Zealand's response was swift with a force landing in Apia on 29 August 1914. The period from 1914 could be characterised as 'Reset One', to be followed by 'Reset Two' when Samoa became independent in 1962.

There is little point in repeating the details of the two main incidents that pointed to New Zealand's unsuitability for colonial rule. But, briefly, the outbreak of influenza in Samoa following the First World War was directly attributed to administrative failure. In the event 24 per cent of the population died--one of the highest rates worldwide. The second incident was the 1929 shooting by New Zealand police of Mau supporters on a peaceful march through Apia.

The Great Depression followed by the Second World War meant delays in realising Samoan demands for independence. But a worldwide trend towards decolonisation in 1945 and increased pressure from the newly formed United Nations led New Zealand to prepare for Samoan independence, which was achieved on 1 January 1962.

Samoa's independence was followed by other leading Pacific Islands countries taking steps to secure their own future status: for example, Tonga (4 June 1970) and Fiji (10 October 1970). Papua New Guinea (16 September 1975) and Solomon Islands (7 July 1978) became independent a little later, while the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau remained in close association with New Zealand. Following a New Zealand initiative in 1971, the South Pacific Forum (now Pacific Islands Forum) was founded. For the following almost 50 years it has functioned as a useful meeting ground for what is now an organisation of eighteen member states. It has United Nations General Assembly observer status.

In the early years, the Pacific did not represent an external threat in the conventional sense, but clearly a New Zealand policy (mindset) shift from shareholder to stakeholder status was required to deal with what were now independent states. There were security issues, but these related more to criminal activities, transnational financial scams, drugs and illegal immigration. More recently the islands states have shown a capacity to branch out on their own. They all have aid and trade relationships with the European Union. Perhaps it was their experience of dealing with the European Union directly that gave islands countries the confidence to caucus as a unit, excluding New Zealand and Australia, to discuss their own interests.

It is over 50 years since Frank Corner said 'New Zealand is primarily a Pacific power ... New Zealand will increasingly be affected by developments in the area ... if we do not accept the implications of our geographical and historical position, as well as the dual racial origin of our peoples, our foreign policy cannot be realistic, consistent and effective'. Corner added that the 'rediscovery of our role in the South Pacific will contribute to the process by which we are regaining our national confidence and rediscovering our unique identity as New Zealanders'. (5) Those were prescient words.

Climate change

For most of its life the Pacific Islands Forum followed the norms of protocol observed among Pacific cultures. That is, procedures were conducted with an emphasis on consensus. The recently completed 2019 meeting in Tuvalu, however, represented something of a watershed when the meeting broke up in open division over climate change. Australia ensured that the official Forum communique watered-down commitments to respond to climate change, but observers saw this as a hollow victory for Canberra. The Conversation summed up Australia's position as not only untenable but also liable to affect Canberra's ability to influence and indeed to take a future leadership role in the Pacific. (6)

Pacific resolve on climate change is clear. The smaller islands states had prepared strong demands in their Tuvalu Declaration--for instance, a ban on the construction of new coal plants. Nevertheless, the final official Kainaki II Declaration following this year's Tuvalu meeting included a weaker demand for transition away from fossil fuels. Dame Meg Taylor, the Forum secretary-general, still saw Kainaki II as 'the strongest statement the Pacific Islands Forum has ever issued collectively on climate change'. (7) The word 'collectively' is, of course, significant.

Moreover, the Pacific Islands Development Forum, an initiative of the Fijian government which wanted a meeting ground that excluded Australia and New Zealand, had produced, in July 2019, the Nadi Bay Declaration. This called on all coal producing countries, like Australia, to cease production within the decade. It is clear, however, that Canberra considers that compromise of this sort on climate change is unacceptable. To Australia, such action would undermine economic growth.

The day before the Tuvalu meeting, Canberra announced a half billion dollar contribution to tackle climate change in the region. But as The Conversation says, the message was clear: Australia can no longer buy off the Pacific. (8) In a deeply poignant response Enele Sopoaga, prime minister of Tuvalu and host of the 2019 Forum, said to Australia: 'you are concerned about saving your economy ... I am concerned about saving my people.'

China's role

The real change for Pacific Islands countries is that they have greatly strengthened their bargaining positions since China took up a more active role in the Pacific. Beijing offers development assistance options which give Pacific Islands countries not only concessional loans but also funding for projects that they want. New Zealand's foreign minister, Winston Peters, argued that there seemed to be a double standard at play when he referred to China as, world-wide, the largest emitter of climate change gases. But in the Forum context, the problem is that Australia purports to be part of the Pacific family and thus presents itself as acting to protect the interests of Pacific Islands countries generally.

Australia is quick to reply that the Pacific remains in the top five of Canberra's priority foreign policy issues. But the Pacific Islands countries listing comes after the Indo-Pacific region, maximising opportunities for Australian businesses, ensuring the safety of Australians and promoting world stability and prosperity. (9) For their part, the Pacific Islands would see number four--promoting world stability and prosperity--as surely applying to them. As Pacific Islands countries repeatedly pointed out at Tuvalu, their stability and prosperity is at stake as well as climate change threatening their very existence.

The shake-down from Tuvalu may take some time to emerge, but it may come at some cost to Australia as the Pacific leaders question the sincerity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's commitment to the purported Australian 'step up' to the Pacific. But let us also bear in mind that in September 2019, barely one month after Tuvalu, where the Fiji prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, called Morrison 'very insulting and condescending', the two prime ministers agreed to a new partnership based on 'trust, respect and understanding'.

Local implications

New Zealand is aware of the issues that are now an intricate part of the Pacific agenda. A key response has been made within the terms of the February 2018 Pacific reset ('Reset Three'), which includes an additional aid contribution of $714 million over a four-year period. The increased funding should introduce some welcome flexibility to the aid programme as New Zealand discusses with a range of Pacific Islands countries and individual experts how to produce a more effective Pacific policy with the extra funding. If the end result is a reset of New Zealand's attitude to the Pacific Islands countries, real progress will have been made.

A useful start could be made by providing New Zealand MFAT staff posted to the Pacific with formal language training and, equally, the study of the specific culture of their area of posting. Pacific peoples place great emphasis on custom and tradition and on recognising the importance of 'the occasion' through observance of strict protocols. Foreign Minister Winston Peters has demonstrated New Zealand's awareness of the importance of protocol by arriving on official visits to the Pacific dressed appropriately and conducting himself with dignity. Delegates accompanying the minister are required to follow suit. That is certainly welcome in the Pacific area. But Pacific culture as such is a great deal more than just dressing appropriately.

The fallout from Tuvalu will mean another balancing act for New Zealand as it shows 'understanding' of Pacific priorities while at the same time continuing an awareness of our important (but at times attenuated) relationship with Australia. This will be no easy matter. Countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is Australia's prime security interest, but it is only of secondary importance to the Pacific nations themselves. Official New Zealand must also be aware that the Pacific community within Aotearoa is showing a greater interest in political issues relevant to their home countries as well as to their local communities in New Zealand. Tapping into that important section of New Zealand's population will be important.

An emphasis on human rights has little place in Beijing's foreign policy priorities. Pacific nations find that not only does the Chinese approach tend to reflect their own cultural priorities but also they welcome an approach which differs markedly from Western attitudes on the issue.

Since early contact in the 19th century New Zealand's Pacific priorities have changed slowly while Pacific leaders have become more confident in pursuing their own interests on a broad international front. In the process the diplomatic dynamic itself has shifted. New Zealand may have announced a Pacific reset; but de facto, since Tuvalu, the Pacific has experienced its own 'reset', an early example of which is the already-mentioned agreement between Australia and Fiji.

Co-ordinated approach

New Zealand cannot compete with major powers on a dollar-contribution basis but we can become more effective among the nations of our Near North by informally co-ordinating our activities through a New Zealand Inc approach. This means, simply, working with business, political and thought leaders to provide research, commentary and discussion points for New Zealanders working within the Pacific. As noted, New Zealand has a long history of involvement with the nations of the Pacific. It is time to show that our own position is placed on a secure foundation.

To better assist MFAT's understanding of unofficial Pacific developments a liaison section could be set up within the appropriate MFAT division to ensure that New Zealand's extensive informal links with the Pacific come under some form of (light) co-ordination facility. Maintaining contact with people who have accumulated specialist knowledge of their own areas of interest over many years in the Pacific could better inform foreign policy options.

For many years New Zealand has had extensive links to Pacific church organisations. Pacific church leaders have close ties with contacts throughout the Pacific and also in the United States. These activities add another informal dimension to the relationship which should be cultivated as part of New Zealand's bid, in the more competitive modern environment, to achieve a better understanding of significant Pacific developments.

The export of New Zealand's educational curricula and teachers creates a well-recognised Pacific dimension. The education industry in New Zealand has produced several generations of islands' professionals trained in New Zealand who return home with not only a knowledge of the New Zealand education system but also a significant awareness of New Zealand itself. Providing refresher courses for Pacific educators in New Zealand would reinforce the two-way contact.

Sport, rugby in particular, has an important place in the Pacific. Funding, especially for rugby coaches, to visit Pacific Islands countries to work on the ground for specific periods to inculcate the essential structure and tactics of the game would resonate strongly with younger Pacific Islanders and with leaders.

The broadcasts of Radio New Zealand are an important part of New Zealand's diplomacy in the Pacific. It is vital that this service is maintained, and kept up-to-date with technological developments.

Governance in the Pacific always attracts attention. In my book Balancing Acts, I suggest that the quality of governance in the Pacific will advance only when the creative instincts of the existing cultures of the Pacific are engaged. The New Zealand Law Commission's Converging Currents provides valuable guidance on this complex subject, recommending, in essence, a stronger role for custom and tradition in Pacific Islands' legal systems.

As Frank Corner said 'New Zealand is primarily a Pacific power.' To me, it is now no longer sufficient just to state our Pacific awareness and identity; in an increasingly active Pacific we must reach a point where the Pacific itself acknowledges that we are an authentic expression of Pacific culture. And that expression must reflect an understanding that without the Pacific we cannot be 'us', and we cannot be 'us' without expressing ourselves as New Zealanders comfortable with our Pacific identity and not as an adjunct to the foreign policy aspirations of our allies.


1. F.H. Corner, in T.C. Larkin (ed), New Zealand's External Relations (Wellington, 1962), p. 133.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Napier greatly exceeded his mandate simply to put down a local rising by conquering the whole of Sindh Province in India. Napier later said that if this 'was an act of rascality it was a noble piece of rascality'.

5. Corner, p. 132.

6. The Conversation (a frequent email newsletter from The Conversation Media Group in Australia), 16 Aug 2019.

7. (accessed 10 Sep 2019).

8. The Conversation, 16 Aug 2019.

9. Australian Government, Foreign Policy White Paper 2017.

10. Gerald McGhie, Balancing Acts, Reflections of a New Zealand Diplomat (Auckland, 2017), p. 228.

Regrettably, New Zealand's role in the Pacific up to the end of the Second World War was not one of great distinction. Nevertheless, after 1945 more enlightened policies began to emerge. Thus the period from 1914 to 1962, when Samoa and a number of other Pacific nations became independent might be termed 'Reset One', but with a 'Subset' from 1945 to 1962 when a greater sense of purpose emerged in New Zealand's Pacific policy. 'Reset Two' dated from 1962. The additional Pacific aid contribution of $714 million over four years announced in February 2018 can be seen as 'Reset Three'.

Ex-diplomat Gerald McGhie QSO spent some six years in the Pacific in both Polynesia and Melanesia as well as being involved in various missions to that vast area to our Near North over a period of 38 years. He is a former NZIIA director.

Caption: The Union Jack is raised in Apia on 29 August 1914

Caption: Meg Taylor

Caption: 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting

Caption: Jacinda Ardern with Australia's Scott Morrison at Tuvalu
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Author:McGhie, Gerald
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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