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The Pacific Family Of Nations Shifting Strategic Environment

Rt Hon Winston Peters
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Speech to the Kumul Leadership Centre, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, other Members of Parliament
Acting Chief of Defence Force, Secretary of Defence
Distinguished Guests
Defence and Diplomatic Colleagues
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon, tēna koutou, apinun tru

It’s a pleasure to be back in Port Moresby today, and to speak here at the Kumul Leadership Centre.

A shifting strategic context

Just two weeks ago, we delivered an address to the NewZealand Institute of International Affairs on the direction of NewZealand’s foreign policy. We spelt out how New Zealand is responding to three big shifts we see in the wider international order – shifts from rules to power, from economics to security, and from efficiency to resilience.

The Pacific family of nations are not immune from these shifts. They face more sustained strategic competition and challenges than at any time during the past 80 years. In fact, since returning as Foreign Minister, we have been struck by the extent at which geostrategic dynamics have sharpened in the region. The strategic environment is not benign, far from it.

We hardly need to tell this audience about the challenges the region faces. Threats to the liberal rules-based international order. Rising protectionism. The use of coercive statecraft to push countries into line. Competition to exploit resources. Added to this are the impacts of climate change, which is an existential threat for some Pacific Island countries.

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On the other hand, increased global connectivity also creates new opportunities – especially in the trade and economic space.

What we are seeing is, in effect, a collision of the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific. And in light of your strategic position connecting the Pacific to Asia, we expect that Papua New Guinea knows this better than anyone.

NewZealand Engagement with the Pacific

The Pacific remains a core priority for NewZealand’s international relations. There are a few reasons for this.

First, by geography alone NewZealand is a Pacific country, but also in terms of our links to the region through history, culture, sport, politics, constitutional obligations, and demographics.

If it all seems a bit abstract, look at it this way: there are Pacific-born people in our Government; our Parliament; our armed forces; our churches, and our sports teams. My own chief of staff has Tuvaluan heritage.

And there are NewZealanders enriching Pacific Islands too: our businesses are increasingly expanding into the Pacific; NewZealanders are routinely seconded into Pacific countries’ government departments; and it is common for Pacific Island New Zealanders to retire in the Pacific. This talent swapping, further enabled by our Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme, gives vitality to our relationships.

Second, as a Pacific country, NewZealand has a direct stake in the region’s peace, stability, prosperity and resilience. Our own national security and economic prosperity is inextricably tied to developments in this region. We have said before that we have, in a very genuine sense, a shared Pacific destiny.

This, by the way, doesn’t meant we presume automatic or willing support. We recognise that, in a more multipolar world, New Zealand needs to work hard to make its case if shared issues are to be advanced.

As a result, it is no surprise that this is the region where we are most active. Six years ago, we announced NewZealand’s Pacific Reset – a re-energised approach to NewZealand’s engagement with our home region, centred around a coordinated boost in engagement and resources.

The core tenets of that approach remain in place today. Over 30 NewZealand government agencies have some form of regular engagement with their Pacific counterparts. And 60 percent of our development budget goes toward the Pacific, with $1.8 billion allocated for the three years ending in June 2024.

But there is room to do more. Since the formation of the Coalition Government in November last year, we have worked to ensure Ministerial engagement with the Pacific is a renewed priority.

Our first visit after being appointed Foreign Minister was to Fiji. Since then, we have prioritised travel to the region – by the end of this month, we will have visited no fewer than nine Pacific countries since the Coalition Government took office. And we will have met 24 Pacific Leaders or Ministers at international meetings, or when they have visited NewZealand.

Other Ministers have been active too – NewZealand’s Minister of Climate Change, and the Minister of Health / Minister for Pacific Peoples are accompanying me on this trip – as are representatives from our Parliament – the Chair of our Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade Select Committee, and a representative from the Opposition.

The broad participation from Parliament in this delegation is deliberate and reflects the fact that bipartisanship in foreign policy is not a luxury for our small state, particularly in a region where New Zealand’s engagement is needed.

In short, across the NewZealand Parliament, we know that engaging face-to-face matters.

A broad-based, and genuine partnership

New Zealand is keen to ensure that our relationships with Pacific countries are based on genuine partnerships and deliver on Pacific countries’ own priorities.

Six years on from the Pacific Reset, NewZealand has moved on from donor-recipient dynamics of the past. Instead, we hope that our engagement takes place in a spirit of partnership – focusing on listening to Pacific countries about your priorities and responding with real solutions that help resolve the collective challenges we all face.

The Kumul Leadership Framework, which is run at this very centre, is a tangible example of the type of partnership we want to build when it comes to Pacific security. It involves NewZealand Defence Force personnel working in partnership with their Papua New Guinea counterparts – jointly identifying capacity-building opportunities for Papua New Guinea Defence Force staff, and responding to these with training, skills-based exchanges, and leadership development.

More broadly, our security cooperation with Papua New Guinea also includes secondments from NewZealand into the Defence Force and Department of Defence, as well as ongoing training, joint operations, and exchanges. And of course, this on top of the long-standing presence of NewZealand Police in Bougainville, and the regular engagement between our border security, immigration, and national security agencies. We were pleased to announce earlier today a $9m contribution to Peace-building activities in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

This type of engagement on security is replicated throughout the Pacific – whether it is NZ Police providing officer safety training to Pacific Police Forces, or Customs NewZealand working with Pacific counterparts on border security, or our officials engaging with Pacific counterparts on cybersecurity risks.

Together, we can make our region safer.

Pacific countries also know that they can turn to New Zealand in times of need. In fact, over the past four days an RNZAF C-130 has been travelling throughout Papua New Guinea, responding to a PNG request for New Zealand to help with the distribution of humanitarian supplies. Similarly, we strongly appreciate the offers of support we receive from Pacific countries, when New Zealand faces natural disasters ourselves.

But we know that when it comes to security, the top priority for Pacific countries is responding to climate change. That’s why we were pleased to advise Minister Tkatchenko this morning that, alongside Australia, NewZealand will contribute $17 million to the development of a solar farm in Bougainville, over the next 3-4 years. This will sit alongside our work across the Pacific on making fresh produce industries more resilient to climate change.

We are also keen to strengthen trade and economic links. We were delighted to host Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Trade Maru recently. The New Zealand – Papua NewZealand Business Council will travel to PNG in June-July.

Our people-to-people links have been built through our scholarships programme, sporting contacts, and our RSE – Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. The number of Papua New Guinea workers on our farms and orchards has doubled under the RSE in the past twelve months and there are opportunities to boost those numbers even further.

The growing breadth of engagement here is reflective of our relationships across the region. And it is also representative of our desire to have frank conversations with Pacific countries on the full range of policy priorities and challenges we all share. And in this context, we’ve appreciated the opportunity to meet PrimeMinister Marape, Deputy PrimeMinister Rosso and Minister Tkatchenko.

When it comes to these conversations, we are keen to share experiences and lessons learned – incorporating our own views on both opportunities and risks, but most importantly, also hearing Pacific perspectives on how you are managing these.

Ultimately, we want NewZealand to be a partner of choice for the Pacific, working closely with the region to strengthen national and regional security; unlock economic prosperity; build social cohesion; support the rule of law; and promote democratic norms. Because for NewZealand, what happens in the Pacific matters.

The important role for Regional Architecture

When speaking about NewZealand’s Pacific engagement, we also want to underscore that this coalition government is focused on working through regional architecture – notably the Pacific Islands Forum - to bolster development and security cooperation across the Pacific.

These mechanisms play an important convening role – bringing the region together on an equal footing, so that we can discuss shared interests, resolve trans-boundary challenges, and chart a way forward on issues that have a bearing on our collective security and prosperity.

At a time when we see increasing competition between larger powers, regionalism is especially important for smaller and medium sized countries such as NewZealand and Papua New Guinea. Notably, organisations such as the PIF play a critical role in amplifying the Pacific’s voice on the global stage. But they also provide a platform for Pacific countries to collectively articulate our values and principles, enhancing the power of the region when it comes to engagement with third countries. In effect, our regional architecture helps to safeguard the sovereignty of all states, regardless of their size.

Being a strong advocate of the Pacific Islands Forum should not and does not come at the expense of bilateral engagement. Instead, a strong and united PIF can complement individual bilateral relationships, helping ensure Pacific interests are not lost amidst the wider focus on the Indo-Pacific.

And while we welcome new architecture like AUKUS or the Quad – those new constructs should not come at the expense of what already exists.

New Zealand is currently involved in discussions with AUKUS partners over the potential opportunities that might exist under AUKUS Pillar 2, a technology sharing mechanism.

While we are a long way from being invited to participate in Pillar 2’s technology sharing arrangement, as a responsible government we are exploring its economic and security benefits.

We are keen, too, to hear from how Pacific countries, including PNG, how they view the arrangement to help inform New Zealand’s own approach.

We want to emphasise that we should continue to work together as Pacific countries to strengthen our own regional architecture. We should look to embed more deeply the concept of “Pacific Centrality” and assert that despite sharpening geostrategic dynamics. But it is ultimately for Pacific countries to shape the destiny of our own region – as set out in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

As one of the largest Pacific countries, Papua New Guinea is an important leader for the region. Port Moresby’s successful hosting of APEC 2018, as well as the visits of several major leaders to this city last year, demonstrate Papua New Guinea’s diplomatic power – and the ability to shape conversations with external partners to the wider benefit of the region. Our discussions today have highlighted that there are further opportunities for us work together on this.

Other Partners

Before concluding, we should mention the important role that other partners can play in supporting the Pacific to achieve our vision, as set out in the 2050 Strategy.

For NewZealand, there is of course no closer partner than Australia, who – as a fellow Pacific country – engages at significant scale throughout the region, in support of Pacific priorities.

But external partners are also increasingly interested in stepping up their engagement in the region. Some have been here for a long time; others are just starting on their Pacific journey. But in almost all our meetings with Foreign Minister counterparts, conversations about developments in the Pacific play a central role – with external partners increasingly asking us how they can best engage.

Our response remains what we said two weeks ago: Engagement in this region should advance Pacific priorities, be consistent with established regional practices, and support Pacific regional institutions – including the Pacific Islands Forum as the region’s pre-eminent regional body. Key to that is building relationships with Pacific counterparts and hearing what their priorities are.

The onus is on us as Pacific countries, however, to ensure that there are good mechanisms that facilitate partner engagement and enable the Pacific to drive relationships forward in line with our own priorities. The Pacific Islands Forum has begun some work in this regard, but more can be done – and Papua New Guinea and NewZealand can speak to our experiences in both APEC and ASEAN-led forums, as potential examples that we can draw on. The ongoing review of Pacific architecture provides opportunities to take this forward.

Looking forward

Pacific countries can expect NewZealand to engage on the basis of friendship, understanding, respect, and ambition to achieve sustainable results together. You should expect too, to see us seriously focused on listening – and responding to – Pacific countries’ own priorities.

NewZealand will work with Papua New Guinea, and other countries in the region, to ensure that the Pacific is firmly in the driving seat when it comes to shaping its own destiny.

Our visit today has been about reaffirming our strong friendship with Papua New Guinea, and our commitment to genuine partnership – engaging as equals on the issues that we are all grappling with and supporting each other to face our challenges.

Ultimately, our message to the region during this time of sharpening geopolitical competition: We are all stronger together, and leadership and the unity of the Pacific is our strongest sail to navigate the current challenging winds.

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