A new paper outlining how New Zealand Defence will increase its attention on the Pacific is being seen as a push to ensure the region's security, as well as pushing back on influence from China.
Defence Minister Ron Mark will today launch the Advancing Pacific Partnerships 2019 Defence Assessment during a speech at Te Papa.
It outlines how the Defence Force and the Ministry of Defence will prioritise the Pacific region in line with the Pacific Reset, which Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters announced at the beginning of last year.
The paper complements the 2019 Defence Capability Plan and focuses on climate change, the stability and security of the region, and people-to-people ties with Pacific nations.
Professor Rouben Azizian, director of Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said the paper was part of the push to reverse New Zealand's neglect for the region prior to the Pacific Reset.
"We have been a little complacent or taken things for granted in the region, letting other external powers step in and influence the Pacific Islands in a way we are not always comfortable with, namely China."
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The Defence paper does not name China, but talks about the geostrategic competition "among great powers".
"If external powers establish a greater regular presence, it could materially affect the Pacific and our own strategic circumstances," the paper says.
The paper talked up the importance of sustainable resources, including the need to protect fisheries.
"This is I think a veiled reference to some of China's projects, such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Belt and Road initiative," Azizian said.
"Western partners are quite cautious, if not suspicious, of Belt and Road, but many Pacific Island nations have signed up. That's a concern, that China's influence will continue to grow through these infrastructure projects.
"We have to counter that by offering our own capabilities and support."
The paper also highlights programmes about leadership and gender empowerment, and this morning Mark is announcing the Pacific Leader Development Programme which will include Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
David Capie, who is director of Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, said this was one way to spread New Zealand's influence in the region.
"New Zealand can't try and outspend competitors in the region so Defence is looking for a different edge, putting a lot of emphasis on soft skills: trading on what it calls cultural intelligence, leadership training, promoting gender equality.
"It makes sense to play to your strengths but I guess the question that remains: Just how much influence does that get you?"
The Government has also sought to support infrastructure projects, among them a joint initiative to bring electricity to 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea by 2030, which was announced last year.
The paper has goals of enhanced sealift, airlift, and maritime domain operations, including a second sealift vessel to be acquired by the late 2020s to work alongside the HMNZS Canterbury, and a dedicated vessel to patrol the Southern Ocean by the mid-2020s.
Azizian said the paper was a "rebalancing" of Defence resources - including diplomatic presence such as Defence Attachés - towards the Pacific and away from other areas such as the Middle East.
"That has been one of the criticisms in the past, that we have rushed to help our external partners in distant regions, and not paying enough attention to our own neighbourhood."
He noted comments from Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi about the "patronising nuance" of other countries telling Pacific states who they should or should not cosy up to.
"They get a little bit annoyed when we tell them to be careful with China and we have better intentions," Azizian said.
"And sometimes Pacific nations saw our emphasis on human rights and good governance as excessive, and that pushed them away from us to China and others. Those guys don't tell them how to run their country.
"Instead of telling them not to deal with China, our job is to make these countries stronger and more independent, and then they can decide who they want to deal with."
Last week, in a speech to the Council for International Development annual conference, Winston Peters spoke about the need for countries jostling for position in the Pacific to put Pacific people first, rather than their "egregious self-interest".
Later asked to name who he was talking about, Peters declined, citing the need to be diplomatic.