The Pacific Reset: New Zealand Re-Engages Oceania

Earlier this year, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, visited the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In the Solomon Islands, Peters signed a new Statement of Partnership with Solomon Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Jeremiah Manele, and he pledged New Zealand’s support for the creation of the Solomon Islands Airport Corporation Limited – a new state owned enterprise that will own and manage the country’s airports. In Vanuatu, Peters discussed New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employment (RSE) program, pledged aid for those displaced by the 2018 Ambae Volcano eruption, and committed $53.6M in aid over the next 5 years.

These visits are part of New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset,” a new regional strategy, designed to re-engage its Pacific Island neighbors and reaffirm New Zealand’s role as both a regional leader and partner.

As detailed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (MFAT)’s Strategic Intentions 2018-2022 report, the Pacific Reset is meant to “shift [New Zealand’s] engagement with the Pacific to a relationship built on understanding, friendship, mutual benefit and a collective ambition to achieve sustainable results in collaboration with [its] Pacific neighbours.” Like Australia’s “Pacific Step-Up” and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” the “Pacific Reset” is a direct reaction to heightened interest and competition in the region.

However, New Zealand’s interest in the Pacific is, importantly, about more than competition. In a 2018 address at the Lowy Institute, Foreign Minister Peters contended that there are three reasons why New Zealand views the Pacific region as being so important: (1) a shared pacific identity, (2) national security, and (3) shared prosperity. These equities all feature prominently in New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset” efforts.

Pacific Identity

New Zealand’s interest in Oceania is rooted in the “pacific identity” it shares with its neighbors. New Zealand is a Pacific island country (PIC), linked to the rest of the region through “history, culture, politics, and demographics.” As explained by Foreign Minister Peters,

One in five New Zealanders – approximately one million people – now have Maori or Pasifika heritage. . . . In many respects, the Pacific is where New Zealand matters more, wields more influence, and can have a more positive impact . . . . Yet it is also a region of opportunity and empowerment where Pacific countries want to stand on their own two feet as equals, make their own choices, and have their distinctive voices heard on the global stage.

New Zealand does a great deal to nurture this sense of shared regional identity. New Zealand is a member of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and was a founding member of the South Pacific Forum (SPF) in 1971 which was renamed to the more inclusive PIF in 1999. It works with regional agencies such as the Pacific Community, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, the University of the South Pacific, and the Forum Fisheries Agency.

New Zealand sponsors a number of regional initiatives and programs, such as the aforementioned RSE program. Under the RSE program, approved workers from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu are allowed to stay and work in New Zealand for a term of seven months. Those workers coming from Tuvalu and Kiribati can stay for up to 9 months given their distance from New Zealand and the cost of travel. When the program was founded in 2007, the cap was set on 5,000 places, but the number has been increased annually. In 2019, the program offered 14,400 spots.

National Security

Stability in the Pacific is critical to New Zealand’s national security. The 2018 Strategic Defense Policy Statement states that New Zealand has “raised the priority placed on the Defence Force’s ability to operate in the South Pacific to the same level as New Zealand’s territory, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. This change recognises the challenges facing Pacific Island states – such as managing the impacts of climate change.”

At the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum, the member states affirmed that “climate change presents the single greatest threat to the livelihood, security, and wellbeing of Pacific people.” New Zealand will certainly feel the effects of climate instability in Oceania firsthand. A 2018 Ministry of Defense report entitled, “The Climate Crisis: Defence Readiness and Responsibilities” explains, “the impacts of climate change will require more humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, stability operations, and search and rescue missions. The New Zealand Defence Force may be faced with more frequent and concurrent operational commitments, which will stretch resources and may reduce readiness for other requirements.”

Re-engaging the Pacific now, to build resilience and capacity in the most vulnerable Pacific Island states is essential to mitigate the damage that widespread climate instability will do to New Zealand. The Pacific Reset seeks to meet the heightened security needs of the region both as they arise and before-the-fact.

Shared Prosperity

Regional stability reaches farther than traditional security issues. Economic and social stability in the Pacific is also in New Zealand’s best interest. As explained by Foreign Minister Peters, “Pacific Island countries with improved economic and social well-being create opportunities for themselves to improve their resilience and self-reliance. We seek to assist Pacific Island countries to achieve sustainable economic growth and improved public financial management as the primary engines of lifting living standards and funding vital government services.”

As noted prior, New Zealand sponsors a great number of regional initiatives and programs that foster economic growth in Pacific Island states. New Zealand is also an incredibly important trade partner for PICs. In 2018, trade between New Zealand and the Pacific was worth roughly USD $2.392B, with USD $957.5M of that value coming from goods and services imported from PICs.

New Zealand also has robust development aid partnerships with its Pacific Island neighbors. New Zealand provides aid to American Samoa, Nauru, Tokelau, the Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Niue, Tuvalu, Fiji, Palau, Vanuatu, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Wallis and Futuna, Kiribati, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands.

Though China is now the second largest state lender to the region, New Zealand remains the second largest state donor, behind Australia. Between 2011 and 2017, New Zealand provided roughly US $1.51B to its Pacific Island partners; 100% of that aid was provided as grants. Aid to PICs accounts for over 60% of all international aid provided New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). Aid amounts are only set to increase under the Pacific Reset.


Claire Huitt is a joint degree student at the University of Texas, pursuing her J.D. from Texas Law and her M.A. in Global Policy Studies from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Claire is a Brumley Next Generation Fellow for National Security Law with the Robert Strauss Center for International Law and Security and holds a Graduate Portfolio in Security Studies from the Clements Center for National Security. She has interned with the Department of State at U.S. Embassy Tokyo and the Department of Justice with the Office of International Affairs on the team for Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Claire graduated from Southern Methodist University and holds a B.A. in economics, political science, and public policy.

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