SYDNEY (AFP) - New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters has raised concerns about "strategic anxiety" in the Pacific - a veiled reference to China's growing influence among the region's island nations.
Mr Peters said New Zealand's centre-left government, which took power in October (2017), would renew its foreign policy focus on the Pacific islands.
The region has long been seen as New Zealand and Australia's sphere of influence but China has become a major player, offering loans for infrastructure projects.
Mr Peters said this meant Canberra and Wellington had to worker harder to maintain their influence.
"The Pacific overall has also become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by Great Power ambition," he said.
"So Pacific Island leaders have more options. This is creating a degree of strategic anxiety."
Mr Peters did not directly mention China - New Zealand's biggest trading partner - in his speech delivered late on Thursday (March 1) to Australian foreign policy think tank The Lowy Institute and released by his office.
But he also pointedly failed to list Beijing among the "regional partners" that New Zealand was looking to cooperate with in the region.
Mr Peters said Australia, the European Union and the United States all needed to come to grips with "the new realities".
"We need to better pool our energies and resources to maintain our relative influence," he said.
His speech came as Tonga's King Tupou VI made a state visit to China, shaking hands with President Xi Jinping.
The state-run Xinhua news agency said Mr Xi vowed to "continue to provide Tonga with economic and technological assistance", adding that Beijing "would never attach any political conditions to such assistance".
QUALITY OF PACIFIC AID
New Zealand's concerns mirror Australia's with Canberra criticising Chinese aid in the region last month (February).
International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells accused Beijing of funding "useless buildings" in the Pacific and roads that did not go anywhere.
Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele labelled her remarks "insulting" and accused her of questioning Pacific leaders' intelligence.
Mr Peters' language was more diplomatic but essentially raised similar concerns.
After meetings with New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern in Sydney on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull repeated his nation's concerns.
But he stressed that "the issue is not the origin of the investment but the nature and quality of it".
"We welcome... investment from any source, any nation, any development bank, on the basis that it is going to provide real value, supports good governance, has got a robust business plan and so forth," he told reporters at a press conference with Ms Ardern.
The Lowy Institute estimates Chinese aid spending in the Pacific totalled US$1.78 billion from 2006 to 2016.
Mr Peters said New Zealand would increase its aid spending but could not match the deep pockets of some donors in the region.
But he said the islands viewed New Zealand as a family member and those links would help its diplomatic efforts in the region.
"New Zealand will embark on a refreshed approach to the Pacific Islands and its people," he said.
"One motivated by our understanding of the scale of the challenges the Pacific faces - stemming from existential climate change issues and ever-present poor economic and social outcomes."
The diplomatic push will begin when Mr Peters joins Ms Ardern on Saturday on a five-day Pacific trip taking in Tonga, Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands.
Ms Ardern spoke on Friday at the press conference of her nation's "deep relationship" with the Pacific nations. She said the region's numerous challenges, such as the impact of climate change and rising sea levels, would benefit from joint action with Australia and New Zealand.