Current changes in the South Pacific make the Government's Pacific policy reset imperative. But what is required also is a change of mind-set. It is time for New Zealand to start working within the Pacific style of collective collaboration and respect for Polynesian traditions.

In his challenging book Island Time, Damon Salesa says New Zealand has yet to come fully to grips with its place in the Pacific and to acknowledge the critical work its Pacific people do to make it finally at home in the area.

He also says foreign policy is the last frontier of government in which the Treaty of Waitangi has yet to underpin fundamental change. Josie Pagani of the Council for International Development has also referred to the value of New Zealand's Pacific diaspora.


By now we are very aware of the vulnerability of the micro-states to our near North. They face serious climate change, a daunting mix of transnational crime and disease, challenges to sovereignty, as well as humanitarian crises.

In recognition of these multifaceted problems Pacific leaders themselves are changing. Like many leaders in today's world they want to know what they ought to do to make a difference for their people.

There is now a new player in the Pacific which is making a significant mark. Since 2006 China has rapidly expanded both its commercial ties and aid programme to the South Pacific micro-states.

Between 2006 and 2016, Beijing committed more than $1.76 billion to 8 Pacific countries. However, in the same period aid from traditional donors, which of course includes New Zealand and Australia, totalled more than $9 billion.

But there is a critical distinction between Chinese and traditional aid. Beijing usually favours providing low interest concessional loans for large infrastructure projects. Other donors typically provide one-way grants that do not need to be paid back. They also engage in projects, not always successfully, ranging from humanitarian assistance to institutional support.

Questions have always been raised about aid programme effectiveness. Some time ago, Julie Bishop, Australian Foreign Minister, expressed the need for a new narrative that provides for a shared vision of the Pacific. Culture and ideas in addition to other forms of soft power, she said, have a role in promoting the goodwill and support needed to "cement Australia's role in the Pacific". For Australia, read New Zealand.

But if change is to be made with any expectation of permanence, New Zealand must now look carefully at how to approach discussions with Pacific partners. That is where the critical shift will have to be made.

An important factor relates to style. Winston Peters has led the way with a $700 million boost to the aid budget, most of which will be allocated to the Pacific. But the vital factor relates to style. How should we proceed?

We have a ready-made, but too often ignored format, to guide us. In particular the lessons learned from the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with Maori. It is important now that we adapt the broad principles of partnership, participation and protection which underpin those negotiations, to our relationships with Pacific cultures which have their own well tested problem-solving protocols, and to let them know that we are listening.

Our need now is to train people to be well-versed in understanding both the cultural norms of the Pacific as well as the experience we have gained from the negotiations surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi.

• Gerald McGhie is a former High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea with many years of experience in the Pacific. His recent book Balancing Acts devotes a chapter to Pacific issues.