PM Jacinda Ardern’s chance to set the tone in the Pacific

Pacific and General

You only get one shot at a first impression. The Prime Minister steps onto Samoan soil tonight for the most important trip to the Pacific of her time in Government, the one proper chance to set the tone for relations going forward.

The week-long annual Pacific Mission trip to Samoa, Tonga, Niue, and the Cook Islands is one of the first Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken in office, save for Australian jaunts and APEC.

She could not have left it much longer. These are turbulent times in New Zealand's backyard.

An ex-Tongan PM has just been arrested in part of snowballing passport scandal. Cyclone Gita smashed through Tonga and Samoa, reminding the whole region how much work remains to be done to deal with climate change. Chinese aid dollars have flooded in, mostly in the form of concessionary loans that make analysts in Wellington nervous, especially when they consider how useful it would be for China to establish some kind of military base this far south.

All of this is bound to come up this week. "Resilience" - political, financial, but mostly infrastructural - will be a particular focus.

In Tonga and Samoa there will be a lot of talk about Gita and how the Pacific can build up the capacity to withstand these huge storms that are becoming more and more regular.

The prime minister will check in on ongoing projects, talk up all the business links Kiwis have with the region, and of course meet with all of the leaders.

But it won't all be about money, men and buildings: Ardern is the Cook Islands for International Women's Day and will highlight that fact, which can be quite a political move in itself in a region with such little political representation for women.

There's also all the "colour" that makes up much of these trips, think photo ops in tropical costumes and likely a few more baby name "suggestions". These moments are helpful when building up personal relationships with other leaders.

There is much continuity between New Zealand governments in foreign policy, but the Pacific, as the one region where our foreign policy has a real and discernible effect, provides one of the best theatres to differentiate. And this Government is by no means content to to continue on with what the last guys did: they want to increase aid, "reset" our position in the region, and set clear expectations around humanitarian issues.

Even with all of New Zealand's "strategic anxieties" and expectations on humanitarian issues, it's understood Ardern is keen not to let the relationship get "paternal". New Zealand should see itself as an important Pacific country, but not the Pacific country.

On this trip she'll want to let Pacific leaders know what to expect from her government, but also hear what she can expect from theirs. It will be quite the balancing act, but if she can get the personal relationships right this time she will have them set for years to come.

With her on the trip is deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Climate Change Minister James Shaw, and various other MPs, NGOs, and businesspeople.

Peters made headlines last week with his "Pacific reset" speech in Australia, the only country that donates more aid money to the Pacific than New Zealand. Without mentioning China, Peters talked about more confident leaders in the Pacific who were "more comfortable courting a range of external powers," creating "an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by Great Power ambition."

"These dynamics are changing New Zealand's relative influence. At one level we are moving from a post-colonial influence to a mature political and development partner," Peters said, noting this was causing "strategic anxiety." In other words, we're no longer the only players in town. The old order in the Pacific where New Zealand was the largest donor for many nations and Australia the largest for others is over.

How to combat this? Peters made clear in the speech his ambition to turn our aid spending in the region around. Under National it rose in absolute terms but dropped as a proportion of Gross National Income from 0.3 per cent to 0.25 in 2016. Peters wants it back up to 0.3, but it's clear that this is not a change that can happen overnight - even if Ardern makes some decent-sized announcements this week. This shift will also provide more money for multilateral institutions that aid the region like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

But just because Peters might be the one leading the conversation, don't for a second think this is his trip and not Ardern's.

This may be her first visit as Prime Minister but it is not her first time in the region by a long shot. Ardern has visited Niue, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomons before taking office. Her father is also the head of the high commission in Niue.

She's already met two of the leaders of the four countries she is visiting, and has spoken on the phone with the other two. While the trip will provide a useful stage for her coalition partners to talk up their big issues - the Greens get Shaw on climate change, NZ First get Peters on foreign influence - this is a prime minister's trip, not some parliamentary junket. Expect a calibre of news to match.

BY Henry Cooke


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