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China has “blindsided” New Zealand by signing a multimillion deal with the tiny island state of Niue – and is said to be on the brink of signing another with the tourism trophy that is the Cook Islands.
The two are self-governing nations in free association with New Zealand, propped up until now by NZ aid and investment. Their residents are New Zealand citizens, who use New Zealand currency, and travel on New Zealand passports.
But Niue has signed a memorandum of understanding with China to join its belt-and-road initiative, by which it seeks to extend its influence around the world. China has offered nearly $15 million (US$9.9 million) to pay for an upgraded 64km expressway around the island, and to renovate some wharfs.
Chinese ambassador Wu Xi attended Niue's Constitution Day celebrations two weeks ago, at which school children waved the Chinese flags while the New Zealand flag, controversially, was not raised. Wu Xi cooked dumplings for premier Sir Toke Talagi and the crowds of locals, in what the embassy called “dumpling diplomacy”.
The belt-and-road initiative seeks to boost trade connections across Eurasia, facilitated by significant investment infrastructure. But critics see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs with a China-centred trading network.
In the New Zealand Government, there are fears the Cook Islands will be the next Pacific domino to fall. China has already paid the Rarotonga administration millions for pelagic tuna fisheries licences, and there is talk of Beijing funding the development of a deep-water port on Penrhyn Island.
Last week, foreign affairs minister Winston Peters met with Cook Island premier Henry Puna in Wellington. Peters is understood to have warned Puna: be careful what you are getting in to.
China is seeking to sign up as many nations as it can to its belt-and-road-initiative, for a big announcement at APEC in Papua New Guinea this month. Negotiations are going down to the line, as China grapples for influence with New Zealand and others.
The United States is understood to be concerned that China plays by the rules, and that New Zealand and other Pacific nations go into any relationship with their eyes open.
One source said the New Zealand government was concerned at China wooing first Niue and now the Cook Islands.
“China are courting a lot of friends and they're probably wanting to have a big show at the Apec conference, to get all the Pacific nations over there showing they see no taint or no fear in working with China,” a source said.
“There's a lot of heat on whether we're being gamed right under our noses. We probably are.”
Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady said New Zealand had authority for the two island nations' foreign policy, but both were free to enter treaty obligations with other states and to establish diplomatic relations with other states.
“The New Zealand Government will, however, be concerned about the implications of these two belt-and-road initiative agreements because BRI has military-strategic aspects, it is not just an economic project,” she said.
“For example, BRI partner states are being asked to host Beidou ground stations, China's equivalent of GPS used for military and civil purposes.”
In Niue, opposition MP Terry Coe expressed concerns about China's motives. “I think we've got to be careful with what they're wanting in return for doing these things” he told Stuff. “China is just after the support of the Pacific, and it's not a good thing.
“The Premier is certainly anti-New Zealand at the moment. We didn't raise the flag or sing the national anthem on 19 October.”
Known as the rock of the Pacific, 2400km north east of New Zealand, Niue is technically self-governing but its people are New Zealanders. Between 2018 and 2019, the New Zealand government pledged $14.6 million (US$9.7 million) in funding for the small nation of 1600 people.
For resort and restaurant owner Avi Ruben, news of development was welcome because of the “horrible” state the roads were currently in.
“If the Chinese will come into it, why not? I don't think we have anything they want or we can offer them,” Rubin said.
“There's not a lot of fishing around us or anything like that.”
Later this month, Chinese president Xi Jinping will travel to the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea where Beijing is believed to be planning a series of announcements about its role in the Pacific.
Niue Premier Toke Talagi and Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna were both approached for comment but did not respond.
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media