18 Nov 2018

Peters encouraged by US interest in the Pacific

3:29 pm on 18 November 2018

New Zealand appears determined to steer a middle course in the growing competition for influence in the Pacific region between the world's two biggest economies and superpowers.

Ministers attend a Pacific Islands Countries Informal Dialogue with leaders at the APEC summit in Port Moresby on November 17, 2018.

Ministers attend a Pacific Islands Countries Informal Dialogue with leaders at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Supplied

The United States and China clashed at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea with US Vice President Mike Pence tackling China head on.

"Know that the United States offers a better option. We don't drown our partners in a sea of debt, we don't coerce, compromise your independence," Mr Pence told the APEC summit.

"We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road. When you partner with us, we partner with you and we all prosper."

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has steered clear of the dispute, saying Pacific nations are free to choose their own paths but New Zealand would maintain its special relationship with the Island nations.

"New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific is long and enduring. We've been here a long time, we'll stay here a long time, because our relationship is unique and it won't be determined by any other nation, nor should it be."

New Zealand and Australia have increased their participation in the region although Ms Ardern was reluctant to say the trans-Tasman neighbours were aligning themselves with the United States and other countries in a sort of Western alliance to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

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Jacinda Ardern meets produce sellers at Gordon's Market in Port Moresby which has been rebuilt with New Zealand aid money. Photo: RNZ / Gyles Beckford

Pacific refocus welcome

However, Foreign Minister Winston Peters was a little more forthcoming, saying Australia's renewed focus on the Pacific was welcome and not too late.

"I'm seriously encouraged by it, we need seriously in depth conversations as to what it all means ... I am seriously encouraged by its refocus and by the United States refocus.

"So the game has changed, and I think we have coming the potential for far more partnerships than we've ever had," he said.

Mr Peters said more countries in south-east Asia and elsewhere were also looking at New Zealand in a new light against the backdrop of the US-China trade dispute.

He said countries such as Vietnam were looking to this country for direction and advice in the region.

Mr Peters said New Zealand was viewed as a country with expertise, knowledge and a close relationship with the Pacific, but with no hidden agenda about its policies and actions.

The small Pacific nations have been invited to the APEC summit as observers by the host, Papua New Guinea, which is the smallest of APEC's 21 members.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern share a conversation at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea. 18 November 2018

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Ardern share a conversation at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Supplied

Ms Ardern said after the meeting with the Pacific nations that climate change was clearly the number one issue for the region, which APEC members could and should help in finding solutions for.

The government has committed close to $30 million to foreign aid projects in Papua New Guinea.

Ms Ardern announced the aid on the fringes of the APEC summit in Port Moresby.

New Zealand will join Australia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea in a $1.7 billion project to expand electricity coverage to about three quarters of PNG's population.

New Zealand's contribution is about $20m.

Ms Ardern said the government will also give close to $10m for immunisation campaigns, particularly for polio which has re-emerged in the country.

She toured a produce market in downtown Port Moresby, which New Zealand has contributed $7m for its renovation.

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Jacinda Ardern being given a gift after opening Gordon's produce market with $7m of New Zealand aid money. Photo: RNZ / Gyles Beckford

Ironically, the summit has been made possible by large backing from China, which has financed various infrastructure projects.

Australia has also spent up big, and it's been providing much of the security for the summit, with warships and patrol boats in Port Moresby harbour. New Zealand patrol vessel HMNZS Otago is also in port.

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