New Zealand PM Ardern says Pacific Islands Forum is critical

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WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday regional architecture such as the Pacific Islands Forum was critical in resolving regional problems and local security issues should be resolved locally.

Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum countries gather in Fiji next week for an annual meeting at a time of growing concern in some countries about China’s influence, highlighted this year by a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

“New Zealand is committed to the Pacific Islands Forum as the vehicle for addressing regional challenges,” Ardern said in a speech to the Lowy Institute think tank in Australia.

“We have a strong commitment to supporting broader ambitions for our regions security,” she said. “Importantly we see local security challenges being resolved locally, with Pacific Islands Forum Members’ security being addressed first and foremost by the Forum family.”

China’s growing sway in the Pacific and the potential for militarisation in the region’s small island nations has fanned concern, particularly in Australia and New Zealand as well as their partner, the United States.

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China, following on from its pact with the Solomon Islands, has been pushing for a regional co-operation deal with almost a dozen Pacific nations on policing, security and data communications.

Ardern said that though Pacific co-operation should be shaped by various agreements in place and regional groupings, that did not mean that others would not have an interest in engaging with the region.

“It would be wrong to characterise this engagement, including that of China, as new. It would also be wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to ‘pick sides’,” she said.

Ardern added that Pacific countries were democratic nations with their own sovereign right to determine their foreign policy engagements.

“But priorities should be set by the Pacific,” she said.

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