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Don’t forget your neighbours, Winston Peters tells Australia

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters has urged Australia not to “forget” the Pacific, in a speech warning “great power” competition had arrived in the region and both governments needed to act to protect their interests.

Peters also raised concerns about the previous government’s decision to sign up to China’s grand Belt and Road infrastructure program and said his government should not be “bound” by the commitment.

Peters told the Lowy Institute last night his government was going to overhaul its policies towards the Pacific Islands, increasing diplomatic efforts and financial aid. He said new dynamics were changing New Zealand’s relative influence and the country needed to “work harder” to maintain its position.

“The Pacific overall has also become an increasingly contested strategic space, no longer neglected by great power ambition, and so Pacific Island leaders have more options. This is creating a degree of strategic anxiety.”

He suggested this was an issue for Australia as well and suggested Australia increase its engagement in line with the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. “You’re right to be concerned about the whole world but don’t forget your neighbourhood,” he said.

Peters said New Zealand would undergo a “Pacific reset” and spend “considerable time in the Pacific” during 2018. He said the country’s aid program was “simply not good enough” and it needed to up it’s spending.

“This is a shift that starts now, particularly given that 2018 is a critical juncture for the Pacific region. During this year the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands will all hold elections,” he said.

Peters said he hoped to co-operate with Australia on the policy reset. “New Zealand is a small, realistic and pragmatic country. We know we cannot help the Pacific solve its problems on our own — as there will always be someone with deeper pockets than ours and some Pacific leaders are attracted to easy sources of funding.”

His comments come after the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, told The Australian in January that Pacific Islands may be taking on unsustainable Chinese bank loans and some Chinese government aid programs involved useless buildings, white elephants and “roads to nowhere”.

The comments led to diplomatic protests from Pacific leaders and Beijing.Peters said Senator Fierravanti-Wells had “offended both parties”.

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