Shane Jones: Waiter, there's a dragon in my Pacific

Who can remember our Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta giving her allegorical 2021 speech about the taniwha and the dragon at an event hosted by the NZ China Council?

It was designed to showcase New Zealand's fresh approach to international diplomacy with China. At the time, it sounded a bit weird but the media shrugged it off.

The minister asked us to believe that the taniwha is endemic to Aotearoa but can trace its lineage across the Pacific. Protectors apparently, holding dominion over seas, lands and territories. Well this guardian is sadly missing in action as the dragon flies above the Solomon Islands and Samoa.

The dragon, we were told, was powerful; a changeling adapting its form, a symbol of prestige. Such power is now grandly on display while our taniwha seems reluctant to leave Three Waters. Mythical yarns are good for the kōhanga reo but not fit for geopolitical purposes.

In the real world, our minister has failed the test of Pacific strategic leadership. Speak and act decisively when you can. Don't wait until circumstances force your hand. Unfortunately, she has exported Labour's penchant for bureaucratic inertia and inaction. Engagement becomes an end in itself.

The China wave has been building for some time and now it is crashing ashore in our island neighbours. For some, it is a surprise. For all, it is disruptive. Minister Mahuta has failed to secure our Pacific leverage. Due to our modest chequebook, we need to create our equity through trust and relationships. Profile and relevance is more decisive.

The new Aussie Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, hasn't even got her new business card and is already doing the business in the Pacific. Recently senior White House official Dr Kurt Campbell flew into Honiara to try and dissuade the Solomons PM from signing the security pact with China. Too little, too late

One can be certain Campbell said to Aussie and NZ Foreign Affairs wallahs; "You only had one job and now look what we've got... a potential military Chinese foothold in the Pacific."

Of course, the Chinese deny anything untoward. They are willing to invest and provide security to the current Solomons government. Blah, blah. Aussies, Kiwis and other Pacific peacekeepers already had those matters in hand.

Their real game is to pivot our tropical neighbours away from us and the US.

Today, the Solomon Islands and Samoa. Tomorrow, Kiribati and beyond. The latter will cause a boil-over given the US will never consent to China building airports on atolls proximate to Hawaii. There will be no South-China Sea parallel.

The current brouhaha about Chinese expansionism in the Pacific overlooks the political games of current Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare. He has a troubled history with Australia.

He expelled the Aussie High Commissioner in 2006, the same year his own office was raided by police, including Aussie officers. If he still has an axe to grind with Canberra,
it is being sharpened by Beijing. Cynics might say Sogovare has been hypnotised by a jade bangle. No, he is using his newfound oriental leverage as local political stickum glue.

In the Pacific, politics is personal and constant contact yields dividends. One cannot outsource such responsibilities as has the current minister. It pays to be constantly with Pacific leaders. Our missions must deliver concrete results.

Previously NZ has done this in the Solomons with airports, roads, wharf facilities and other infrastructure projects. Hundreds of millions have been spent on Honiara peace-keeping, although dwarfed by the billions spent by the Aussies.

The Chinese moves in Honiara all depend on how long PM Sogovare remains. He believes his durability is best served by a closer relationship with Beijing and the associated economic windfall. He has elevated his personal political survival above any Pacific-wide obligations.

How does any of this impact on our future in the Pacific?

Are we spectators at a new match of great power competition? Our Prime Minister seems to think it matters and says this is our neighbourhood. Okay, what will actually happen?

She needs to inject political energy into the contest and invest. Our delivery needs to improve markedly. Regular visibility would be a start. A change of face or pace will, however, create Māori Caucus ructions.

The Pacific leaders will exhort us to dig deeper on climate change. However, this must be more than international aid for global funds that are virtually impossible for our
neighbours to access. The Chinese make it so much easier. The folk on the ground look for more practical solutions, including expanded access to our labour market and expanded education opportunities.

A significant increase in visas for seasonal workers would be a good place to start. Greater investments which create physical assets and human capital with long term economic benefits.

Our diplomatic profile would improve if we sent more skilled personnel who know how to build or fix things rather than passive cable writers.

In short, our role in the Pacific cannot be maintained through formulaic interactions. Kiwis need to see more practical effort and commitment from Minister Mahuta - and fewer facile fairytales.