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Dragon rising: NZ walking diplomatic tightrope with China in the Pacific

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo / AP

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare at a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo / AP

Damien Venuto


Damien Venuto

Front Page Podcast Host/Columnist - NZ Herald


China's recent moves in the South Pacific have raised alarm about the superpower's growing influence in this part of the world.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have now all expressed concern about the security and trade deals China is trying to get across the line in Pacific island nations.

This started with China's security pact with the Solomon Islands, but representatives from Beijing have since visited a number of islands across the region.

Newstalk ZB chief political reporter Jason Walls tells the Front Page podcast that China is clearly looking to expand its global influence – and this can make things awkward for New Zealand.

Given New Zealand's long reliance on Chinese trade, New Zealand needs to be careful about picking a fight with a far larger country.

"New Zealand can be critical of China, but only to a point," says Walls.

"If the Chinese government is upset enough, they could slap some tariffs on our products. And that could devastate a small country like New Zealand.

"I mean, we are to China what Micronesia is to New Zealand. If we were to turn off the tap to China it wouldn't really hurt their economy all that much, but it would devastate ours. Of course, the Chinese know this and they're not as forgiving as other countries when it comes to the diplomatic route on things."

Australia has seen the impact of this first-hand. Under the Scott Morrison Government, Australia's heavy-handed criticism of China was swiftly met with import tariffs. This rocked the Australian wine industry, which had become heavily reliant on the Chinese market.

Should New Zealand cross the line in its criticism of China, we could see similar retribution on the trade side.

On the flip side, China is a sovereign nation and it is within its rights to enter these independent countries and offer them a better deal than they're getting from Australia or New Zealand.

Walls says that China's approach in the Pacific has already been employed in a similar way in African nations.

"China is coming in and saying: 'Well, we can pay for some infrastructure, police training and things like that,'" says Walls.

"If you're a Pacific leader and you need these things now, you're not thinking about what might happen down the road. When you think about it, a lot of these countries are being eroded away because of climate change. So, if somebody comes along and says 'We can help you,' then maybe you start to question whether you should still be culturally aligned with a country like New Zealand."

This is certainly the sentiment that was shared by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who spoke to the media about his admiration for the way China had worked toward "pulling people out of poverty".

This is part of the reason why NZ First leader Winston Peters has been calling for a renewed focus on the amount of aid given to Pacific Nations by New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

But this all comes at a tough moment when inflation and domestic economic pressures are starting to weigh on politicians – especially amid growing concern about an impending recession.

"The opposition has been critical of Government spending, and New Zealanders who are struggling with the cost of living might question why the Government would be spending millions on roads in Fiji, for example," says Walls.

This simply adds further complexity to our attempts to stifle the influence of China in the Pacific, without blowing budgets further.

Listen to the full podcast for detail on the influence of China in the Pacific.

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

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