Australia, New Zealand reassess Pacific role amid growing Chinese influence | News | DW | 02.03.2018
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Australia, New Zealand reassess Pacific role amid growing Chinese influence

New Zealand's deputy premier has spoken of "strategic anxiety" in the Pacific in a seeming allusion to China's increasing clout in the region. But Australia says it welcomes any "productive" investment.

Tongan King Tupou visiting Xi Jinping (Getty Images/Lintao Zhang)

Tonga's King Tupou VI with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday that he supported Chinese investment in Pacific island nations as long as it "provided good value," after comments by New Zealand's deputy prime minister seemed to raise concerns about China's fast-growing influence in the region.

"We welcome this investment from any source, any nation, any development bank, on the basis that it is going to provide real value, supports good governance, has got a robust business plan and so forth," Turnbull told reporters in the eastern city of Sydney after talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Turnbull's comment reflects a more positive view than those made earlier this year by Australia's minister for Pacific affairs, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. She accused Beijing of constructing "useless buildings" and "roads that do not go anywhere" in the Pacific, which was long a virtually uncontested sphere of Australian and New Zealand influence.

Read more: China has become a 'major donor' in the Pacific Islands region 

'Great power ambition'

The prime minister's words also display a welcoming stance toward Chinese activities in the region that is not entirely shared by Australia's closely allied neighbor, New Zealand.

The New Zealand deputy prime minister and foreign minister on Thursday spoke about "strategic anxiety" in the Pacific in a veiled reference to China's increasing investments there.

"The Pacific overall has also become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by great power ambition," Winston Peters told The Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based foreign policy think tank.

Winston Peters (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Baker)

Peters said Wellington would renew its Pacific focus

"So Pacific Island leaders have more options. This is creating a degree of strategic anxiety," he said, adding that Australia, the European Union and the United States needed to come to terms with "the new realities" by pooling their resources to "maintain our relative influence."

Although Peters did not directly mention China, which is New Zealand's biggest trading partner, he pointedly did not include Beijing among the "regional partners" that New Zealand wanted to cooperate with.

Read more: Can Japan compete with China over development aid?

Growing investments

The Lowy Institute estimates that China spent $1.78 billion (€1.45 billion) on aid in the Pacific from 2006-16. Australia remains the largest donor of foreign aid to the region, but analysts say that this aid budget is likely to fall in face of the country's slowing economy and large national debt, giving China increased opportunities to spread its influence.

Peter's speech came as Tonga's King Tupou VI made a state visit to China. The state-run Xinhua news agency said Chinese President Xi Jinping had vowed to "continue to provide Tonga with economic and technological assistance," while adding that Beijing "would never attach any political conditions to such assistance."

Reflecting what Peters said would be a renewed foreign policy focus on the Pacific islands, he and Ardern are to begin a five-day Pacific trip on Saturday taking in Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands.

Ardern said on Friday that joint action between Pacific nations, New Zealand and Australia would be of benefit in view of the challenges facing the region, such as the impact of climate change and rising sea levels.

tj/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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