WELLINGTON—New Zealand will send 14 new diplomats to the Pacific region next year, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Dec. 4, the latest move by Western governments to counter China’s growing influence in the strategic region.
The additional staff will be based in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and the U.S. state of Hawaii, Peters said in a statement.
The move comes amid growing Western concerns about China’s influence in the South Pacific through its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) initiative, which dominated a recent Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit hosted by Papua New Guinea.
“These new positions are a first step in demonstrating New Zealand is committed to the Pacific to help it be … safer and more prosperous and enhancing New Zealand’s voice in a region,” Peters said.
The jobs will be advertised by the end of this year and the new posts expected to be filled by the middle of 2019, Peters’ office said.
New Zealand is also sending four additional diplomats to Japan, the United States, the European Union and China to coordinate policy on the Pacific region, Peters said.
The United States, Australia, France and Britain are opening new embassies, adding more staff and engaging with leaders of island nations more often in a bid to counter China’s rising influence.
Competition between the United States and China over the Pacific was thrown into focus at APEC in November with the United States and its Western allies launching a coordinated response to China’s OBOR program.
A New Zealand government defense report released on July 6 warned that Communist China’s rising influence in the South Pacific could undermine stability in the region.
New Zealand and Australia have traditionally been the two major players in the South Pacific, but the report said New Zealand was now losing influence amongst the small island nations to China.
“New Zealand’s national security remains directly tied to the stability of the Pacific. As Pacific Island countries develop … traditional partners such as New Zealand and Australia will be challenged to maintain influence,” the report read.
Chinese economic aid to the region is growing significantly, according to Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute, with an estimated $1.78 billion spent in the decade to 2016.
By Charlotte Greenfield & Colin Packham