22 May 2023

Watch: PM Chris Hipkins holds a media stand-up in Papua New Guinea

12:38 pm on 22 May 2023

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says military presence doesn't necessarily signify militarisation.

Hipkins held a media stand-up in Papua New Guinea where he is attending the United States-Pacific Summit.

The US is poised to sign a deal with PNG that may give American armed forces uninhibited access to the island nation's territorial waters and airspace.

Hipkins says he's had constructive conversations with Prime Minister of PNG James Marape and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown.

He says the agreement between the US and PNG is more of an extension of an existing relationship between the two countries, rather than a new thing. He says it's not just about military presence, it's also about development and relationship.

He says his conversations with Marape on the matter were mostly listening to the PNG perspective, and says he got "some greater clarity on what they're aiming to achieve from the arrangement".

"New Zealand doesn't support militarisation of the Pacific. Having said that a military presence doesn't necessarily signify militarisation.

"For example, New Zealand has a military presence in the Pacific regularly following natural disasters, we send military assets up here to support countries that have been affected by natural disasters."

"We shouldn't assume that all military partnerships are necessarily about conflict".

He says the New Zealand message to all Pacific nations is we are a trusted partner with the interests of all Pacific nations at heart, but recognises they are sovereign nations.

He said the AUKUS partnership may come up in conversation with the US but it has not yet.

"New Zealand's position on AUKUS has been clear from the beginning, we don't see ourselves as being part of any nuclear arrangement which is the primary driver of AUKUS. In terms of what they might be talking about under the second pillar, that's not yet clear, as we've already indicated."

He says the relationship with India is already very warm, with a lot of people-to-people exchange and it is already a major trading partner.

"So we see opportunity to grow that to mutual benefit for both countries."

He says as a former education minister he know India highly values the international education relationship and sees it as a potential area of growth.

Part of his conversation with Marape also went over climate change mitigation and resilience, with the effects of climate change already being felt in Papua New Guinea.

"Our international contributions to the climate effort have never been more important."

"I think things like helping to build energy resilience and core infrastructure - particularly around transport and so on."

He says he's not going to pass a judgement on the PNG-US agreement, saying "it's a question for the countries concerned, they're ultimately entitled to have their own arrangements".

"We don't come here to tell them what to do or what to think, we come here to engage in discussion with them recognising that our ... brothers and sisters here in the Pacific are entitled to chart their own course and determine their own futures but New Zealand certainly wants to be part of that."

The summit was Hipkins' first chance for face-to-face meetings with Pacific leaders in the top job after he pulled out of an earlier engagement because of Cyclone Gabrielle.

After meeting with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Hipkins announced New Zealand was confirming $15 million of funding - drawn from existing international assistance funds - to help the country recover from Covid-19.

The Cook Islands economy is highly dependent on tourism, and Hipkins said the funding would help the country continue to deliver essential services.

"The Cook Islands government is managing its country's recovery impressively, but an unprecedented 41 percent economic contraction from Covid-19 can't be underestimated," he said.

The pair also discussed climate change, a frequent core theme at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Meeting which will be hosted in Rarotonga this year.

Chris Hipkins being welcomed into Port Moresby

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins being welcomed into Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone