Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

South Pacific defence ministers gather for new group

Defence Minister, Jonathan Coleman. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Defence Minister, Jonathan Coleman. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman returned last night from an inaugural meeting of South Pacific Defence ministers, a new regional grouping driven by Australia.

The United States was invited as an observer along with Britain, but China and Japan, which have a strong interest in the region, were left off the guest list.

The meeting was hosted by the Tonga Government but the organisation for the first meeting has largely been handled by Australia which has a security alliance with the United States.

Mr Coleman signed a treaty with Tonga to allow for easier visits to Tonga by New ealand
Defence Force personnel for exercises with Tonga.

Mr Coleman said the agreement would allow NZDF staff to stay in Tonga temporarily and
enable greater inter-operability with the Tongan Defence Service.

Only two Pacific Island countries were present, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. Fiji which is still under military rule was excluded.

The other participants were New Zealand, Australia, France - which has Pacific territories - and Chile. While it is a Pacific Rim country, It is not clear why Chile has been included in a South Pacific ministerial grouping. The driving force for the new grouping has been Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith.

The meeting comprised both ministers and several defence chiefs. It is not clear yet whether the meeting will become an annual event or just a regular event.

Initially the grouping is likely to concentrate on humanitarian and disaster relief and maritime surveillance.

The treaty was signed with Tongan Prime Minister and Defence Minister Lord Tu'ivanako.

New Zealand's engagement with Tonga comes after a period of concern about the transition to democracy in Tonga.

A leaked briefing paper in 2003 by the High Commissioner at the time Bryan Smythe said the Tongan Defence Service regarded the democracy movement as "the enemy'' and that
contact with the New Zealand army under a mutual assistance had not changed that.

Tonga has since had undergone its first democratic elections with the current Prime Minister being the first one not appointed by the King.

Tonga has a defence force of about 600 and with about 50 serving in Afghanistan, has one of the highest commitments per capita in Aghanistan.

- NZ Herald

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