Richard Prebble: The Chinese are being successful in the Pacific because they are funding what the locals value. New Zealand is losing influence because we fund what we think they should value.
Richard Prebble
Contributing Writer
April 21st, 2022

OPINION: New Zealand is a partner of an Atlantic Defence treaty but apart from a pact with Australia this country has no defence treaty. New Zealand is a NATO partner, a nuclear alliance, but our membership of ANZUS is suspended.

Jacinda Ardern has explained New Zealand is sending troops to Europe because “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of international law”. Russia’s “blatant attack on a country’s sovereignty is a threat to all of us”.

The PM is correct. Russia’s invasion is a threat to the international rules-based system that is fundamental to New Zealand’s national security.

All the political parties say the Pacific should be New Zealand’s focus but the actions do not match the words.

In violation of international law China has occupied and militarized islands in the South China Sea.

China has negotiated permission to set up a military base in the Solomon Islands.

The Defence Assessment 2021 states that the establishment of a military base in the Pacific by China would be a significant threat to our security.

Jacinda Ardern’s response to these developments is to express concern.

Labour’s “focus on the Pacific” appears to be the appointment of Louisa Wall as Pacific Ambassador for Gender Equality/Tuia Tāngata. It is an appointment that the very conservative Pacific governments will not welcome.

Just as John Key appointed Shane Jones a Pacific ambassador, Labour is using a Pacific ambassadorship to get an MP out of parliament.

Successive governments have made trade the foreign policy priority and ignored security. New Zealand relies on distance for our defence. Moscow is closer to Paris than Sydney is to Auckland. Our military has warned that cyber-warfare has made distance irrelevant.

Sweden and Finland are neutral countries. Both recognize Russia’s aggression and its Security Council veto mean they cannot remain neutral relying on the United Nations for their security. Both nations have signalled they intend to join NATO.

The New Zealand Government is yet to acknowledge that events in Europe and the Pacific have fundamentally changed our security situation.

The Labour Government should never have allowed China to get a foothold in the Solomon Islands. It is a country I know well.

For a bargain $16.6 million a year the Chinese have obtained permission for a military base. $16.6 million is a tiny fraction of our $5.2 billion defence budget. New Zealand cannot afford the cost of an effective counter to a Chinese base in the Pacific.

The Solomon Islands have a system of Constituency Allowances: A fund that each of the 50 MPs has to spend on development in their electorate. When the Solomon Islands switched recognition from Taiwan the Chinese Government agreed to pay the cost of these allowances, $90 million Solomon, that is just $16.6 million Kiwi.

Western aid donors have been critical of the constituency allowances. One MP I know used his allowance to provide free ferry trips for his constituents to his island electorate. It is no different from our Government funding Gold Card holders free ferry trips to Waiheke Island.

The Solomons is a third world country. Little government spending is transparent or effective. On that particular MP’s island there is no infrastructure. When I visited, the teachers had not been paid for six months. The only taxpayer expenditure was the MP’s constituency allowance.

If our Government had agreed to fund the allowances there would be no agreement for a Chinese base.

The Chinese are being successful in the Pacific because they are funding what the locals value. New Zealand is losing influence because we fund what we think they should value.

There is scant evidence that New Zealand’s aid programs are any more effective than the spending priorities of the democratically elected Pacific governments. No wonder many Pacific Island MPs believe New Zealand is more of a threat to their values than China.

The Solomon Islands could be the first of a number of Chinese Pacific Island military bases threatening New Zealand’s trade routes.

Russia’s invasion and China’s actions have fundamentally changed global security. The Ukraine is an object lesson on how dangerous it is to have no defence agreement with America.

As the person who introduced the first Nuclear Free Bill I have the credibility to say New Zealand needs to urgently seek to have our suspended membership of ANZUS lifted. Legally no law change is required. If our allies request an amendment before readmitting New Zealand then so be it.

As an aside, combating climate change may require a rethink of our nuclear free status. We would be foolish to ignore that new, even safer, smaller, nuclear power plants are under active development but that is for another post.

Today our security requires a defence treaty with the only country capable of countering China.


This post was originally published on Bassett, Brash, and Hide on 20 April 2022. It is published here with permission.

Richard Prebble (CBE) is a lawyer, former member of Parliament, Labour cabinet minister and leader of the Act Party. He is now a director, author and columnist and lives at Lake Rotoma.