Defence Minister Ron Mark is happy to put New Zealand Defence personnel and their people skills up against the big bucks from China in terms of winning favour among Pacific Island nations.
New Zealand's recent treatment of the Pacific region - which Mark described as "paternalistic" and "condescending" - has been partly blamed for creating space for China to move in.
"It's fair to say we dropped the ball and we lost sight of what's really important," Mark told reporters this morning.
"People-to-people relationships, and a genuine desire, genuine affection, genuine love for those people we engage with."
Asked how people skills compared to money from China in the Pacific, Mark said: "If you're asking me if I put money ahead of people, the answer is 'no'."
China has poured billions into the Pacific in recent years, mostly for infrastructure projects and through concessional loans; a Lowy Institute report showed $4b of Chinese money in the Pacific in 2017 alone.
New Zealand also supports Pacific infrastructure, though not with the same financial heft, and is also pursuing soft diplomacy such as training and people-to-people relationships.
Part of that diplomacy will be Defence-run leadership programmes in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga, each tailored to those countries' needs.
Mark announced the programmes this morning while launching the Advancing Pacific Partnerships 2019 paper at an event at Te Papa.
The paper outlines how the Defence Force and the Ministry of Defence will seek to build long-term relationships with Pacific peoples in line with the Pacific Reset, which Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters announced at the beginning of last year.
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The paper does not name China, but warns of geostrategic competition and "great powers [that] ... could materially affect the Pacific and our own strategic circumstances".
Mark said the strategy was about partnering with "like-minded" nations in ways that did not undermine Pacific nations' sovereignty.
"If nations are put into positions where they are unable to repay debts, if there are caveats and ties attached to financial assistance, that has the potential to undermine economical sovereignty."
Mark did not include China in his list of "like-minded" nations, but said he "would like to think" that China had the same interests as New Zealand, such as transparency and "the prosperity and well-being and the sovereign rights of Pacific Island nations".
China was an important player in the Pacific and should not be ignored, Mark said.
"There are areas where we will require collaboration and co-operation with China, particularly as the impact of climate change becomes more severe and we find ourselves responding to increasingly violent and more frequent disruptive weather patterns."
Professor Rouben Azizian, director of Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said the jury was still out on China's intentions in the Pacific.
"I don't think China has vicious objectives or plans ... I don't think they want to colonise the region.
"Of course there is selfishness in their policies. They want to have a stronger presence, they want to have more economic influence - but China can't do vicious and bad things if it is not allowed to do that, and the way to do that is to have dialogue with China more and more.
"There was talk of them trying to establish a military base in Vanuatu. That's all rumours. We don't have any evidence yet. I remain optimistic that we can end up with a China that is collaborative and is like-minded."
He was not particularly optimistic about the long-term "like-mindedness" of the UK and the US, which he said had shown "isolationist, nationalistic and populist" tendencies.
Mark said "like-mindedness" also included respecting other nation's customs, adding that many Pacific people held religious beliefs and similar values to tikanga Māori.
"We may have a secular view in New Zealand. That's not to say we should ignore other peoples views, particularly if we are trying to work with them for the common good of the entire Pacific."
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy said that China's interests in the Pacific stemmed from the principles of equality, mutual benefit, openness and sustainability, with each partnership characterised by mutual consent.
The recent China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum, held in Samoa, showcased the value of Chinese assistance, the spokesperson said.
"The Prime Minister of Samoa said that a comprehensive strategic partnership with mutual respect and shared development as well as [Belt and Road] cooperation will provide development platforms for both sides. The Prime Minister of Vanuatu said that his country will strengthen cooperation with China, enhance long-term friendship and cooperative partnership and bring more benefits to the two peoples.
"These facts attest to the welcome that China enjoys, extended by the island governments and peoples, for the tangible benefits brought by cooperation between China and Pacific Island countries."