Story: Pacific Islands and New Zealand

Page 1. New Zealand and the Pacific

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New Zealand is a South Pacific nation with strong cultural, economic and political ties with other Pacific states and territories. People of Pacific Island descent were 7.4% of the total population in 2013. Auckland, with a quarter of its population identifying themselves as Māori or Pasifika in 2013, was regularly described as the world’s largest Polynesian city. Since 1993, Pacific Islanders have held seats in New Zealand’s Parliament.

Pacific identity

New Zealand has always been, geographically, a group of Pacific islands. As New Zealand’s identity has shifted away from being a distant outpost of the British Empire, it has increasingly emphasised linkages, both cultural and political, with other island nations in the Pacific. New sources of cultural inspiration – including those brought by Pacific migrants – have become important.

Special relationships

New Zealand, economically and politically a minnow in the wider world, is relatively large and powerful in the Pacific. Foreign policy towards the Pacific Islands has been driven by a variety of objectives – some of them long-standing, such as expanding trade and capital flows, or strategic considerations. Others include the provision of development assistance, opposition to nuclear testing, and the management of post-colonial political crises. There has been an underlying focus on political stability.

New Zealand retains special relationships with its former colonies. The Cook Islands and Niue have ‘free association’ agreements, giving their governments substantial budgetary assistance and the people New Zealand citizenship. In 2020 Tokelau remained a non-self-governing New Zealand territory. Western Samoa was under New Zealand jurisdiction from 1914 to 1962, when it gained independence. Generally, New Zealand has assumed greater responsibilities in Polynesia, while Australia has taken the leading role in Melanesia.

New Zealand's first minister of Pacific Island affairs (Richard Prebble) was appointed in 1984. In 1990 the Pacific Island Affairs Unit became the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs (later the Ministry for Pacific Peoples), which was concerned with the social, economic and cultural development of Pasifika in New Zealand.

New Zealand–Australian alignment

New Zealand policy towards the Pacific Islands has often been closely aligned with Australia, whether in relation to trade, aid or the handling of political crises. The two countries tend to adopt a common approach on Pacific matters at meetings of the Commonwealth and United Nations, and where disagreements occur these are usually kept out of the media limelight. An exception in the late 2010s was climate change, where New Zealand was sympathetic to the concerns of affected Pacific Islands while Australia was somewhat out of step with the other states in the region.

The Pacific Islands Forum

In August 1971 the Pacific Islands Forum (initially the South Pacific Forum) held its first meeting in Wellington, attended by representatives from Nauru, Western Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. An earlier regional organisation, the South Pacific Commission, had been set up in 1946. Its founding members were the colonial powers present in the Pacific: Britain, France, the United States, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. The commission concentrated on advancing the technical, professional, scientific and administrative capability of Pacific Island people.

The forum developed into the premier regional political body. In the 1980s it focused on opposing the dumping of nuclear waste and the resumption of French nuclear testing at Moruroa. The South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty was agreed at Rarotonga in August 1985. As conflict flared in New Caledonia between pro-independence and loyalist groups in the mid-1980s, the forum backed the French territory’s reinclusion on the United Nations list of ‘non-decolonised territories’.

Crises in 2000 posed particular challenges for New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands Forum. The Fiji coup of May 2000, followed by a coup in the Solomon Islands, generated growing concern about ‘failed states’ within the region. Riots in the Solomon Islands and Tonga in April and November 2006 respectively, and another coup in Fiji in December 2006, generated friction within the forum. The situation in all three countries improved markedly during the 2010s.

How to cite this page:

Jon Fraenkel, 'Pacific Islands and New Zealand - New Zealand and the Pacific', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Jon Fraenkel, published 20 Jun 2012