Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta says the new Pacific focus is on building resilience to combat climate change and growing financial dependence on international donors.
In her first major speech on the region on Wednesday, Mahuta announced a transition from the Pacific Reset, set under the previous government, to a focus on building resilience.
Then foreign minister Winston Peters began his term with the Pacific Reset, announced in 2018, a policy designed to step up engagement with and spending on the Pacific and in so doing, increase the importance of New Zealand's leadership in the region.
Mahuta said today she was building on that and shifting towards resilience. That shift reflected the biggest issue facing the Pacific in climate change, along with recovering from the impacts of Covid-19, which has proven particularly devastating in Fiji.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has already announced half of the $1.3 billion in funding for climate change aid will go to the Pacific – although $300 million is from existing baselines.
Mahuta said the arrival of Covid-19 had "severely hindered" progress in many Pacific island countries, while climate change continued to be the "single biggest threat".
Those two challenges risked "exasperating" the inequalities, and ability to offer the support needed.
The Pacific had become a "theatre of interest" and required clear focus, she said.
There were also concerns with "the way investment in the Pacific is occurring", Mahuta said in response to questions around China's influence in the region.
This was creating "quite a significant level of economic vulnerability and debt", she said.
"Countries make their own determinations, but partnering with the Pacific in the way I propose is about long-term sustainability in those countries, to look after themselves."
Asked how the approach would differ to the "reset", Mahuta said this would be more about building "in-country capacity".
The reset provided a great foundation, but Covid had compounded the challenges, she said.
The new approach would build on that, and ensure it was consistent across Government and other partners working in the Pacific, she said.
Over the first year of Mahuta's role her engagement with Pacific countries has mostly been about Covid-19 and the Cook Islands bubble, and mostly been conducted from afar.
But there have been other major events, including Samoa electing its first woman Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mata'afa.
At Mahuta's first meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum this year, five Micronesian members of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum gave notice of their withdrawal because they failed to get their candidate elected as PIF secretary-general.
Mahuta said she hoped they could resolve the issues with those Micronesian members.
Security would also be a major focus of the new approach, Mahuta said, along with addressing illegal fishing, which also had a cross-over with climate change.
Research has found under strong projections of climate change, small island economies are poised to lose up to US$140 million annually by 2050, and up to 17 per cent of annual government revenue in the case of some states.