Questions are being raised about New Zealand's position in the Pacific after reports of China seeking a region-wide agreement with 10 nations and the country's foreign minister embarking on tour of the region.
Wang Yi will over the next week visit eight of the countries involved seeking endorsement of the agreement, starting with Solomon Islands this evening, and including Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Fiji.
Australia's newly-minted Foreign Minister Penny Wong meanwhile will arrive in Fiji tomorrow, seeking to reassert her country's position in the region, which has been under question since the Solomon Islands-China security pact in March.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta however currently has no plans to follow suit, drawing criticism from opposition MPs, although she has met remotely with several Pacific nations and visited Fiji earlier in March.
Her first and only discussion with her Solomon Islands counterpart since the security pact was this week on Zoom, which came a day after media highlighted her lack of communication.
The latest leaked agreement, obtained by NZME, include a draft communique and five-year action plan sent by Beijing to at least 10 Pacific island nations seeking co-operation on matters as broad as policing, biometrics like fingerprints, and scholarships.
The documents have been circulated widely by Beijing to Pacific island nations ahead of a foreign ministers' meeting on May 30.
Speaking from Washington on her US tour, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was not for New Zealand to speak on behalf of other Pacific nations, but it was clear China was looking to draw in a "wide membership".
"I see it as China is trying to increase their engagement with sovereign nations – but expanding into a space where actually the need around security arrangements we are able to meet within our region.
"From New Zealand's perspective, we see it as incredibly important that the response to it and those discussions actually come from within the Pacific as well."
The upcoming Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting would be incredibly important as an opportunity for the Pacific to canvas its view on the increasing presence of China, Ardern said.
Within the Pacific New Zealand has the means to respond to any security challenges, she said.
"The Pacific is our home. We considered the Pacific our family and where those needs exist, we are ready and willing to respond to that call."
National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said China proposing such an extensive agreement showed competition in the region was "escalating".
"And it's not clear New Zealand is part of the dialogue on meeting the needs of Pacific Island countries."
He said the fact that some Pacific nations were considering the deal raised questions about the strength of the relationship.
Australia is the largest donor to the region, providing AU$1 billion in aid in 2020/21, and New Zealand second contributing $489 million.
According to the Lowy Institute the two countries provide 55 per cent of aid to the region.
"This agreement falls far short of supplanting our commitment," Brownlee said.
"The fact that some Pacific Island countries will consider this agreement raises questions over how the New Zealand-Pacific relationship appears to have broken down in recent years."
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta called the China-Solomon Islands agreement evidence of a "relationship failure" between the countries.
"This new agreement may be a relationship catastrophe for New Zealand and the rest of our Pacific neighbours," Brownlee said.
"The Minister needs to urgently explain what she and this Government will do to ensure New Zealand's long commitment to the Pacific is not swept aside under her watch."
Act Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Brooke van Velden said the potential deal was "hugely concerning".
She said given China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi would visit eight Pacific Islands within the week Mahuta should have already done so.
"Unfortunately, the Government has not taken the threat to Pacific security seriously. We are a small nation, but we should be a leading democracy in the region."
University of Otago International Relations Professor Robert Patman said the agreement was a clear escalation of Chinese interest in the Pacific.
But he said there was already pushback from some Pacific Island countries, including the Federated States of Micronesia.
Reuters reported its president David Panuelo said his nation would argue the "pre-determined joint communique" should be rejected, because he fears it could spark a new "Cold War" between China and the West.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta declined a request for an interview