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Islands Business’ Dev Nadkarni interviewed New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern exclusively for this Islands Business Pacific Person of the Year edition in late November. She talks about New Zealand’s Pacific relationship, new initiatives of engagement with the ‘Pacific Reset’ and the effects of increasing geopolitical activities of distant nations in the Pacific.

New Zealand being home to the largest Polynesian population of any country, how have Polynesian culture and deep historical ties with the region shaped and influenced New Zealand’s relationship with Pacific Island nations?

New Zealand is in and of the Pacific. It is where we are located and how we define ourselves internationally. New Zealand’s Pacific identity, and the culture and heritage underpinning it, compel us to engage in the region. New Zealand Māori trace their migration back to the Pacific, and more recent migration means a significant Pacific population now call New Zealand home. Through these ties to the Pacific we continue to develop how we listen, learn, engage and honour the cultural heritage New Zealand shares with the Pacific.

Inclusiveness is one of the ideals that your Labour-led government has stood for and earned a reputation for around the world. How has your government’s approach to Pacific peoples – both resident in New Zealand and those in its close neighbourhood – differed from that of previous New Zealand governments?

The Pacific Reset marked a refreshed approach for New Zealand’s engagement in the Pacific, placing a greater focus on inclusive development, which leaves no one behind. It affirmed our commitment to supporting human rights, effective governance and democracy, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and child and youth well-being in the region, and these now all have increased focus in the aid and development programme.

New Zealand recognises the complex challenges faced by young people, women, children, and other marginalised groups across the Pacific. Addressing these challenges is critical to sustainable development and ensuring a stable, prosperous, and resilient Pacific.

We are committed to working alongside our Pacific partners to build a region where all people are empowered, valued, and able to realise their full potential.

Do your Government’s policies for Pacific peoples resident in NZ (through the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, the Pacific Business Trust, etc.) dovetail in any way into policies for Pacific Island nations generally (through MFAT and the Pacific Cooperation Foundation, for instance)? Is there a holistic approach to the Pasifika people living here and around Polynesia? 

As part of the Pacific Reset we are striving to have coherence between our domestic policies and how they impact the Pacific region. Improved alignment between domestic and international policy is delivering better outcomes on issues as diverse as pension portability, adoptions, and healthcare. Decisions, actions and events in New Zealand have a greater consequence and meaning for the Pacific than any other region. The Pacific, in turn, shapes New Zealand’s identity and influences the safety and prosperity of New Zealand and New Zealanders.

What have been the notable achievements of the Pacific Reset? Has aid to Pacific Island nations increased? Have there been any new programmes through the Reset? What are the tangible developments/achievements?

In the almost two years since the Pacific Reset, New Zealand has made real headway in building deeper partnerships with Pacific Island countries, shifting how we are operating in the region, and significantly lifting our aid on priority issues. We are lifting our aid programme budget by an additional NZ$714 million aid over four years from 2018. Much of this will be invested in the Pacific.

This budget increase is a critical enabler of the Pacific Reset, allowing additional investment in the well-being, prosperity, and security of the region, including in issues that matter to the region such climate change, economic resilience, health and education, governance, gender, human rights, and youth.

Core elements of New Zealand’s refreshed approach in the Pacific include promoting regional and international action on regional priorities, and promoting the Pacific voice on these priorities globally; enhancing our diplomatic presence; and shoring up New Zealand’s values through our partners in the region.

The islands are disadvantaged by a well-known slew of factors: tyranny of distance, no economies of scale, a lack of human capacity, non-communicable diseases, sub-par infrastructure, political instability, geopolitical pressures – all of that now increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. In which of these issues can NZ take meaningful leadership to help the islands and make a real difference? Does NZ have the means to fund such initiatives?

The Pacific Reset recognises the array of challenges facing the Pacific. New Zealand is responding to these challenges and aims to ensure our work is aligned with our Pacific partners’ and key regional priorities.

Climate change represents an extreme threat for Pacific Island nations and is an area of specific focus. New Zealand shares the Pacific’s goal of an ambitious and effective global response to limit the impact of climate change on the Pacific. New Zealand is supporting climate change-related mitigation and adaptation activities in a range of sectors including energy, infrastructure, tourism, agriculture, coastal protection and disaster risk reduction.

New Zealand has committed to delivering at least NZ$300m in climate-related support between 2019 and 2022, at least two-thirds of which will benefit the Pacific, and at least half of which will focus on adaptation initiatives. This is underpinned by a dedicated Pacific and adaptation-focused NZ$150m Climate Change Programme which will focus on improving water security, building the resilience of Pacific ecosystems, and supporting Pacific countries to transition to low carbon, climate-resilient futures.

We are directly supporting priority initiatives, but we don’t have the means to fund everything.  Meaningful leadership also means working closely with other donors and agencies in the region to leverage funding for regional priorities – and to ensure that funding is Pacific-led.

How have NZ’s longstanding ties with Pacific Island nations been affected in recent decades, particularly in view of ever-increasing geopolitical activity aggressively driven by distant nations in the Pacific?

New Zealand is lifting its engagement in the region including by deepening our partnerships with Pacific Island countries and coordinating efforts with other actors in the region. New Zealand is a partner, not just a donor, and we are striving to ensure our relationships with Pacific Island countries are built on understanding, friendship, mutual benefit and a collective ambition to achieve sustainable results. At the centre of the Pacific Reset is a fundamental shift in the way we work with our Pacific partners, moving away from donor-recipient dynamics of old, to building genuine and more mature partnerships.

China is well acknowledged as the elephant in the room when it comes to Pacific geopolitics. NZ has had an excellent relationship with China. However, this cannot be said about NZ’s other western allies – especially the USA and even Australia, to an extent. How does NZ manage this three-way Pacific Islands-China-Western-allies relationship? What is NZ’s stand with regard to Pacific Islands’ interests?

China has an important role in the Pacific as a committed and long-term partner for Pacific Island countries.  New Zealand works closely with all of our partners in the region, to encourage best practice and advance Pacific priorities.

New Zealand’s Pacific Reset and Australia’s Pacific Step Up have seen us collaborating even more closely in the region.

In the interests of regional stability, New Zealand encourages all donors to provide assistance to the region that supports regional stability and enables inclusive and sustainable development.

Is there new thinking among western allies, particularly the ANZAC nations toward increased cooperation in working together in the Pacific Islands region? If yes, what has motivated this relatively recent initiative?

As mentioned above, New Zealand works closely with all of our partners in the region, to encourage best practice and advance Pacific priorities. This is not new, but following the Pacific Reset, we are working to strengthen these partnerships.

Working together can bring scale to responding to challenges, reduce burden on our Pacific partners, and better safeguard our shared interests of a safe, stable and prosperous region.

We work very closely with Australia throughout the region, including through coordinated aid arrangements. For example, New Zealand manages Australia’s development assistance to the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue via a delegated cooperation arrangement; and Australia manages New Zealand’s funding to the Office of the Pacific Oceans Commissioner and other regional programmes.

Has Australia stolen a march over NZ’s Pacific Islands initiatives particularly in the past couple of years with its Pacific Step-up programmes in response to NZ’s Pacific Reset?

We don’t view our relationships in the Pacific as competitive. The challenges facing the Pacific underscore the importance of working in partnership with Australia in the region. Through New Zealand’s Pacific Reset, and Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, both governments have set a clear goal of deeper, more mature relationships with Pacific Island countries.

Pacific Islands collectively face a $1billion trade deficit with NZ and a credible solution to correct this situation has been elusive for decades. What would be your Government’s response to this? Would your Government see a substantially increased labour mobility as a possible part-solution? What else could be possible solutions? 

New Zealand acknowledges the unique challenges that Pacific Island countries face in participating in regional and international trade.

New Zealand sees labour mobility as an important part of our people-to-people connections and our economic relationship with Pacific Islands. We know that labour mobility makes an important contribution to Pacific economies, and that remittances represent a considerable proportion of Pacific gross domestic product. Recognising this, we are looking at ways to facilitate increased opportunities, including through looking at our immigration settings as they relate to the Pacific.

New Zealand is confident that the PACER Plus trade agreement could help to foster increased trade across the region, by allowing regional trade to take place on the basis of common and consistent rules. Together New Zealand and Australia have committed AU$25.5 million to support the Pacific countries that have signed PACER Plus to take advantage of the trade and investment opportunities provided by the Agreement through a five-year development and economic work programme.

The work programme will commence once PACER Plus enters into force and will focus on helping to address capacity and supply side constraints. In preparation for that, New Zealand continues to support efforts across the Pacific to modernise customs border management systems, strengthen market access, remove non-tariff barriers to trade, update investment regulatory frameworks, strengthen connectivity, and explore qualifications equivalence across the Pacific and New Zealand.

(First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, December 2019 Issue. Read the magazine here.)