Saturday, April 22, 2006

Audrey Young: Riots highlight NZ presence

If foreign Minister Winston Peters was looking for a way to show the United States how active New Zealand is in the Pacific, the response to the shocking Solomon Islands riots delivered it.

The riots also showed why Peters' pledge to make the Pacific his number one priority as Foreign Minister was a thoroughly sound one.

Making the Pacific his priority came easy: it has been a constant priority for his New Zealand First Party for its 13 years, Peters has many personal contacts in Polynesia and Fiji, and there was no argument with the ruling Labour Government.

But making New Zealand's role in the Pacific central to his efforts to improve the United States relationship was more carefully thought about.

After saying early on that it was also a key objective to improve relations with the United States, he had painted himself into a corner.

Implicit in the objective was a criticism of how Labour had developed the relationship.

And he had set himself up for failure unless he could make significant movement on the nuclear impasse or free trade agreement.

By restating his objective in February, Peters has set himself a different measure and left those two issues where they rightly should be - with Prime Minister Helen Clark and Trade Minister Phil Goff.

Peters' new objective is for the United States to better understand New Zealand's level of engagement in the Pacific - and how it snugly fits with its own security agenda.

And while Peters has understandably sought to more softly recast his depiction of the United States as ignorant of what is happening in the Pacific, the fact is that his comments went down a treat in voter land.

He and his ministry have already been credited with success by Clark: Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is said to have left New Zealand on a recent visit a lot more informed and impressed by the level of engagement New Zealand has in the Pacific. [Hill is being interviewed live on Agenda this morning from Washington, 8.30am TV One].

It was a quirk of timing this week that Defence and Trade Minister Phil Goff was in Washington at a business forum and was able to personally brief US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the evolving Solomons crisis.

Peters was in Russia, meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he previously met at Apec and, coincidentally, whom he cited in February as having "understood just how significant New Zealand's contribution has been".

It is probably as well that Peters and Goff were away because if they were at home, they would have been surplus to requirements this week.

Clark has been handling the crisis here, with Australian counterpart John Howard, as she would have done even if the pair had been in the country.

Although the riots are not necessarily a failure of the much vaunted Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi), which has soaked up millions in aid and defence funding, especially from Australia, and an abundance of hope and goodwill, they have been a blow to Clark.

She negotiated hard with Howard on the ground rules for Ramsi and both have a strong sense of investment in it.

New Zealand insisted on the approval of the Pacific Islands Forum and the involvement of as many island states as possible - not to mention the invitation of the host country.

Sensitivities around Australia's participation in the invasion of Iraq were still strong at the time, as were sensitivities by Australia over New Zealand's non-participation.

As well as being necessary to rescue a failed state, Ramsi was an important way for New Zealand to show it would be more than happy to pull its weight when justified; and for Australia to show it was capable of multilateralism when justified.

Informed commentary suggests the riots this week were a response against corruption, corruption by Taiwan and its interests in the Solomons of what were supposedly clean, democratic elections there this month.

Taiwan denied the heavy hints from Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer that the riots were a consequence of Taiwan and its backers bank-rolling sympathetic candidates, as does the new Prime Minister, Snyder Rini. They would, wouldn't they.

Australia has billions of reasons to be unhappy.

At a time when it is trying to tie its huge aid programme to good governance, Taiwan and China's chequebook diplomacy undermines it.

New Zealand is more tolerant than Australia of China's ambitions in the Pacific, taking the view that as long as the Pacific countries welcome China and it respects the Pacific Islands Forum long-term development plan for the region, then it is welcome.

The Solomon Islands is one of six Pacific Island Forum countries that recognises Taiwan, a large enough group to have attracted China's Premier Wen Jiabao and his wallet to Fiji this month to announce more than $600 million in preferential loans to the other lot.

The blowout in the Solomons is a reminder of how brittle peace in paradise really is, particularly in Melanesia, which traditionally falls within Australia's sphere of influence.

Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu appear to be in a perpetual state of instability.

Taiwan was implicated in Vanuatu 18 months ago when Serge Vohor was forced out of office as Prime Minister because he unilaterally pledged a switch in allegiance from China to Taiwan - against the wishes of the Cabinet.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in the week before the confidence vote in Vanuatu that politicians and their family members were spending up large in Port Vila with wads of US$100 notes.

The Fiji elections are only two weeks away. This is one occasion on which the Labour-led Government in New Zealand will not be praying for the election of a sister party in Fiji.

The concern in Fiji is in every direction: not only over what indigenous nationalists would do with an Indian Fijian Labour Prime Minister, but what the military would do with newly mandated indigenous nationalists flexing new power.

Peters' first visit to the Pacific as Foreign Minister was to Fiji this year where he reportedly delivered a firm message to military chief Frank Bainimarama about governance.

Clark will be expecting a lot more of the same from Peters.

Downer and Peters are planning a joint trip to the Solomons after a meeting at a business forum in Auckland early next month.

Making the Pacific a priority was simple: how to make a difference will be the challenge.

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