The frequent use of the term “shared values” to describe developments in the Pacific tends to obscure a clear shift in New Zealand and Australian relations with their Pacific partners over the past two decades.
This shift has led to a shift away from a readily accepted acceptance by Pacific nations of policies that reflect “developed country” priorities, to a greater insistence on New Zealand and Australian support for policies pursued by those Pacific- partners themselves are generated.
This move has now been acknowledged by New Zealand’s Foreign Secretary Nanaia Mahuta and more recently by Australia’s new Foreign Secretary Penny Wong during her visit to New Zealand last week, which gives credibility to a renewed Australian focus on the “Pacific family”.
Perhaps the most obvious expression of those Pacific priorities and values is related to climate change. This existential challenge to island nations is the highest priority by Pacific Governments, but has also been by far the most divisive factor in recent Australian and New Zealand relations with the Pacific.
Successive Australian leaders have refused to consider commitments to climate change policies that Pacific countries consider critical to their long-term survival. Australian officials have worked to weaken the outcomes of international climate change conferences.
Frustrated by Australia’s resistance to using the Pacific Islands Forum to demand more meaningful action against climate change, Pacific countries felt compelled to seek participation in other international groups and forums where their priorities could be unequivocally promoted.
Against this background, Wong’s post-election flight to Fiji was a necessary and timely “rescue”. Her catchy cry of “we heard you and we listen” is a crucial indication of an impending change in Australia’s position on climate change.
A new regional convergence on climate change policy will remove a major annoyance from Pacific relations and create a solid foundation for the partnership’s future. But continued commitment by Australia and New Zealand to purpose-built climate change policies will be essential for their sustainability.
Fiji’s growing influence
Fiji’s evolving position was a major factor in the broadening of Pacific States’ international relations.
Following the 2006 coup, Fiji responded to tensions with Australia and New Zealand by aggressively pursuing a “Look North” policy. It has strengthened trade and development partnerships with East Asian and other non-Western states (including China) and put pressure on other Pacific governments to follow suit.
Read more: Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s lack of action on climate change
While Fiji has finally moved away from its conflicting stance towards Australia and New Zealand, the legacy of that policy remains, in broad ties with China and other non-Western countries.
In recent years, relations between New Zealand and Fiji have been progressively normalized. This is reflected, for example, in Fiji’s participation with New Zealand and other partners in the proposed Agreement on Climate Change Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS). This has been further strengthened by New Zealand’s support for Fiji’s COVID vaccine deployment.
Read more: After much false dawn, Australians finally voted for stronger climate action. Here’s why this election was different
Meanwhile, Fiji has become energetically involved in international climate change diplomacy and positioned itself as a world champion of the Pacific’s priorities. It has improved his leadership faith among members of the Pacific Island Forum, further strengthened this year by his status as forum chairman.
The visits to Fiji earlier this year by New Zealand Cabinet Ministers Peeni Henare and Nanaia Mahuta, and the subsequent Duavata declaration, reflected both the realities of the renewed partnership and the modern regional role of both countries.
Understand China’s mistake
China’s recent failure to secure Pacific nations’ support for its proposed regional governance and security agreement has been greeted with relief by observers in New Zealand.
Read more: To meet the Chinese challenge in the Pacific, NZ must put its money where its mouth is
But it is important to recognize that failure has also been a salutary demonstration of Pacific governments’ insistence that policies affecting the region should be based on decisions by those governments themselves, reflecting their own priorities.
New Zealand was wise to recognize this and allow space for regional governments to build consensus on relevant issues ahead of the forthcoming meeting of Pacific Island Forum leaders.
Read more: Labor’s proposed Pacific labor scheme reforms may be good soft diplomacy, but will it address workers’ exploitation?
Progress needed with regard to labor mobility
Looking to the future, the biggest potential contribution New Zealand can make to Pacific development lies in expanding and broadening labor mobility arrangements with Pacific partners. This has the added benefit that China will not be realistically able to make such arrangements.
The impact of the absence of Pacific seasonal workers during the pandemic has highlighted their importance to the New Zealand economy.
Consultation should now take place both internally and with Pacific partners to design and implement a comprehensive range of labor mobility arrangements that both support Pacific development aspirations and deliver an economic benefit to New Zealand.
During the recent Australian election campaign, both major parties indicated their intention to continue with this issue. This is one area where New Zealand is not lagging behind.