The United States says “the door is open” for New Zealand to join AUKUS, as geopolitical competition reaches fever pitch in the Pacific, with three of the world’s most influential leaders continuing lightning tours of the region.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in New Zealand after opening the new US embassy in Tonga on Wednesday.
He has met with New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
His tour comes as French President Emmanuel Macron visits Vanuatu, where he has given a speech in the capital Port Vila warning that Pacific “sovereignty and independence” is being shaken by what he describes as “new imperialisms”.
Mr Macron is in Vanuatu after visiting French territory New Caledonia this week, where he made a separate speech flagging more military personnel for the territory and warning that independence could mean a “Chinese naval base tomorrow”.
The Indigenous kanak population has been agitating for independence, with some boycotting Mr Macron’s visit. But Pacific watchers say Mr Macron is keen to see the territory in French hands to counter China’s lingering threat in the region.
In the speech in Port Vila on Thursday, Mr Macron again referred to China’s aggressive push in the Pacific — although he did not mention the nation by name.
“First of all, there is the predation of the major powers: foreign ships fish illegally in the exclusive economic zone, numerous loans [that] are literally strangling development in the region,” Mr Macron said.
“Commercial practices are being increasingly distorted, interference is multiplying, and new imperialisms are emerging in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Oceania, and a logic of power is threatening the sovereignty of many states, the smallest and often the most fragile.”
Mr Macron, the first French president to tour a non-French Pacific island, is set to leave Vanuatu for Papua New Guinea on Thursday night.
The US Pacific tour
United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin arrived in Papua New Guinea on Wednesday, amid US attempts to cement its relations in the region’s most populous nation.
Mr Austin held a bilateral meeting PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape on Thursday morning, as PNG itself looks to leverage the US’s renewed interest in the region and ratify a defence agreement between the two nations.
The Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) was signed between PNG and the United States when Mr Blinken visited Port Moresby earlier this year.
Mr Marape has faced domestic pushback over the agreement, with protests at the time of its signing and a possible legal challenge flagged by PNG’s opposition leader over certain provisions of the document.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Austin revealed a US Coast Guard ship would arrive in Papua New Guinea next month, and that the US was not seeking “permanent basing” in the country.
Yet, the agreement would give the United States access to key PNG bases for the next 15 years.
It still has not been ratified by the country’s parliament, with debate over the document adjourned until next month.
On Thursday, Mr Lloyd said the United States’ goal was to strengthen PNG’s defence forces. He said the agreement would “expand PNG capacity” to modernise its forces and increase interoperability.
“We’re not seeking permanent basing — this is a foundational framework to deepen that defence relationship,” he said.
Mr Marape told reporters that US defence personnel would visit the country from September, looking firstly at infrastructure development in PNG’s second-largest city, Lae.
“[The DCA] means infrastructure is developed, not just our defence infrastructure and utilities, but more importantly the supporting infrastructures in and around the footprint of where the defence presence will be,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to the full rollout of the 15-year program we have with US defence force.”
Blinken says ‘door is open’
In New Zealand, Mr Blinken met with the New Zealand prime minister and foreign minister as he continued his lightning tour of the region.
They met at New Zealand’s parliament buildings, known as the Beehive, where they held a joint press conference, but not before the US delegation was welcomed to Aotearoa with a powhiri — a Māori ceremony Mr Blinken said was something he would not forget.
“As we further develop AUKUS, the door is open to engagement,” Mr Blinken said.
“As we continue to work on the second pillar, the door is very much open for NZ and other partners to engage as they see appropriate going forward.
“NZ is a deeply trusted partner, a Five Eyes member, we’ve long worked together on the most important national security issues.”
Ms Mahuta reiterated her country was “not prepared to compromise or change” its nuclear-free position, but flagged the nation was exploring “pillar two opportunities”.
Mr Blinken also said New Zealand and the US stood ready to support “a just and lasting peace” in Ukraine “based on the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence”.
“These are the same principles that underlie the rules-based international order that we have been working to uphold in this region, and indeed, against those who seek to undermine them or advance an alternative version anywhere in the world,” he said.
“We’ll support all nations freely determining their relationships and their partnerships.
“We also believe together that we should use those relationships both with allies and partners, and other nations, to defend and advance our affirmative vision for the Indo-Pacific, in which nations make their own sovereign decisions free from coercion.”
Mr Blinken said New Zealand had been a leader “on every issue of consequence” in the Pacific, especially as the US was seeking to revitalise its presence in the region.
Ms Mahuta said New Zealand viewed the US among its “closest friends” and valued their “security relationship and strong defence connections”.
“We discussed the rules-based international system, which has been fundamental to our prosperity, and the challenges it faces in a more contested global environment and our Pacific region,” she said.
Ms Mahuta was asked about New Zealand’s position on Solomon Islands’ security agreement with China.
“We’ll continue to push on the Solomon Islands PM [Manasseh] Sogavare to make clear what the full extent of those arrangements are so we can assess what it means for our region,” she said.
Ms Mahuta said New Zealand welcomed the increased US presence in the region, referencing Mr Blinken’s visit to Tonga on Wednesday where he opened a new embassy.
Mr Blinken is due to attend the United States versus Norway World Cup game in Wellington on Thursday.
Source : ABC NET