Unrest in the Pacific
A battle of words is brewing between New Zealand, China and the Solomon Islands over a proposed security deal
Mōrena and welcome to The Bulletin for Wednesday, March 30, by Justin Giovannetti. Presented in partnership with Z Energy.
In today’s edition: Benefit increase too low; Louisa Wall resigns from parliament; Wellington faces ‘milkgate’; but first, the growing tension over a security deal between China and the Solomons.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
A security pact between the Solomon Islands and China risks ‘destabilising the region’.
Uneasy diplomacy is underway in what Jacinda Ardern has called Aotearoa’s “backyard”. At the centre of the developing stoush is a leaked proposal of a security deal between the Solomon Islands and China that could be signed within days. New Zealand’s foreign minister and prime minister have warned that the deal could destabilise the region and militarise the Pacific, according to the NZ Herald. For Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare, the agreement would be the culmination of a whirlwind three years that first saw him shift the country’s recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019.
Criticism of the deal is ‘very insulting’, according to the Solomon Islands PM.
Speaking in Honiara about the agreement for the first time, Sogavare was defiant in the face of criticism. “When a helpless mouse is cornered by vicious cats, it will do anything to survive,” Sogavare told the Solomon Islands parliament yesterday. As The Guardian reports, he said that criticism of the deal by foreign powers was “insulting” and called the people who leaked the agreement “lunatics.” He didn’t speak about any specifics in the deal, but said it wouldn’t allow for the construction of Chinese military bases. The Chinese foreign ministry has verbally shot back at Australia and New Zealand, telling them to stop dictating “self-importantly and condescendingly from a privileged position.”
What the deal says about the future of the Solomons.
The terms of the draft deal are both vague and sweeping. They allow for the Solomon Islands to request police and military personnel from China, but also provides an opening for China to send military forces to the islands to protect “the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects”. The draft also seems to require the Solomons government not to disclose any of its activities under the agreement unless China approves of it. The prospect of Chinese forces deployed so close to Australia and Aotearoa alone raises serious questions about the future stability of the region. According to Politik, the deal has led to Ardern’s most direct criticism yet of China. Ministers are Canberra and Wellington are increasingly approaching Beijing with the same wary apprehension, which is quite a significant shift from New Zealand’s generally conciliatory approach in recent years.
Could this lead to a change in New Zealand’s defence situation?
“We continue to have shared concerns over the ongoing issues with the Solomon Islands and their engagement with China in a way that it may add to the militarisation of the Pacific. We share those concerns, but so does the Pacific. We do need a whole of Pacific voice on this, this isn’t just about us, this is about our whole region,” Ardern told reporters yesterday at parliament.
The defence minister was blunter. RNZ reports that Peeni Henare said New Zealand will warn other Pacific islands about Chinese overtures. The combative tone is a reflection of the strategic location of the Solomons. They sit on the main shipping routes into Australia and Aotearoa. Some of the most ferocious battles of the Second World War were fought on the islands, to keep lines of communication open between North America and the Tasman. The strategic situation in 2022 isn’t all that different. According to the NZ Herald (paywalled), the government is now looking at whether to stick with its current defence budget or shift to spending more.
Forget the diplomacy, this could also be about domestic politics in the Solomon Islands.
It’s possible the leak was meant as a bargaining chip. Australia has already responded with a commitment to keep its security forces in the Solomons until the end of 2023 and to spend hundreds of millions to support the local government. An anti-corruption group told RNZ that the security deal is only the latest contentious policy from a government that has made many. There are still protests in the Solomon Islands about the decision to switch from Taiwan to China in 2019. People in the Pacific aren’t “passive dupes” The Conversation writes, they are making choices in the face of real constraints. China’s deal with the Solomons should also be a wakeup call for Aotearoa and Australia. Their diplomatic and economic efforts in the region clearly aren’t working.
Friday’s benefit increases will leave families ‘locked in poverty’.
The government will boost benefits for families in need by 3% this week, but campaigners say it doesn’t go far enough for the poorest households. Bridie Witton reports for Stuff that the most hard-up families will face weekly shortfalls of up to $300 going forward. With inflation and the surging price of rentals, anti-poverty groups warn that it just isn’t enough and poor families are being “locked in poverty” from which they can’t escape.
Louisa Wall resigns from parliament, ending a storied 14 years as MP.
Louisa Wall has been one of Labour’s most successful MPs, achieving more from the backbench than many cabinet ministers. With uncanny success, she saw through the passage of same-sex marriage legalisation, secured safe zones outside abortion clinics and made revenge porn illegal. But as I wrote about her last year, she’s also outspoken and opinionated—and nearly always right. Wall announced her resignation yesterday, citing the events from the 2020 election for her departure. Henry Cooke wrote for Stuff about the backroom political manoeuvring in Labour that saw her resign. With her leaves one of the most independent MPs in parliament.
Wellington council faces ‘milkgate’ and a very silly law.
The Wellington City Milk-supply Act 1919 still exists on the capital’s books, giving council a monopoly on the sale of milk. It hasn’t been used since 1987. A lawyer wants the city to repeal the law. After council agreed, officials said it would be too time-consuming. The Dominion Post looks at why this is on council’s agenda and the argument that archaic laws shouldn’t be allowed to exist in perpetuity.
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Overall Covid cases falling as omicron fades, but deaths increase.
Tens of thousands of New Zealanders are still catching Covid every week, but there are encouraging signs that the omicron variant is in fast decline. RNZ reports that the “Mexican wave of cases” is happening as regional spikes move around the country. However, deaths could remain high for weeks to come, with the country recording a record 34 from Covid yesterday. According to the NZ Herald, Aotearoa’s Covid-19 mortality rate surpassed that of the United States for the first time.
Medical officials have flagged concern over low Covid vaccination rates for children. The first group looking to march onto parliament grounds since the occupation ended were blocked yesterday. National MP Chris Penk came out to meet the group instead and accept a petition making unfounded claims about Covid vaccinations. As Stuff reports, the woman who give Penk the petition had been found to be running a scam Givealittle page.
On the future of Auckland.
Today is Justin Latif's last day as The Spinoff’s South Auckland editor. He's been one of this country's most dedicated local democracy reporters and his enterprising work has helped me better understand the vital region he has covered. Much of New Zealand’s future is in South Auckland and getting it right requires people like Justin. I'll be sad to see him go. But first, I had to ask him for his thoughts about Auckland. Consider this his exit interview:
“Having reported on Auckland politics for the last decade and a half, including my two year stint here at The Spinoff, I can appreciate the outrage expressed by many towards Auckland council and its departing mayor, including by the smattering of new faces to Auckland’s political scene who are promising to turn things around.
And the city is undoubtedly in a state of flux, as it grapples with a massive infrastructure deficit that is making life in this beautiful region less and less enjoyable.
But what frustrates me is the wilful ignorance in our political discourse, perpetuated by us in the media, that presumes these issues are relatively easy to solve, while requiring virtually no serious investment from central government or ratepayers.
They say Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump invented the “nothing is true and everything is possible” style of politics, but you could argue it’s been plaguing Auckland for generations, given the obsession with keeping rates low, while convincing ourselves we can fix all our issues with another motorway lane.
If Auckland is to move forward, council’s unyielding civil service needs to be brought to heel to some extent. But it’s not going to take more fake bravado or angry rhetoric. While I haven’t agreed with mayor Phil Goff’s approach in all situations, his greatest achievement was his steady determination to unravel and unwind the intransigent attitudes within Auckland council towards any kind of change. The job is clearly not done, so whoever does get the top gig in October will have to be prepared to continue to tackle this beast that is Auckland in a way that unites, collaborates and gets results rather than sows dissension and division.”
Reweti Kohere reports that companies are wading through vaccine mandate uncertainty. Dylan Reeve tried to track his cat with GPS and it didn’t go well. Toby Manhire explains why an extremist participant in the parliament occupation was arrested. Noelle McCarthy writes about the photos behind her new memoir, Grand. Stewart Sowman-Lund finds that the internet is in love with Our Flag Means Death.
It’s Barcelona for the America’s Cup.
The America’s Cup is heading to the Mediterranean as Team New Zealand has sold its cup defence to Barcelona. The team had rejected a $99 million bid from the New Zealand government and Auckland council to keep the event in Aotearoa. While Team New Zealand was all smiles in Spain, there’s been criticism of the move at home, the NZ Herald reports.