CANBERRA, Australia — Australia and New Zealand are set to seal a new security agreement with their Pacific island neighbors as China increases its influence in the region, officials said on Friday.
The agreement was expected to be signed at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum in September, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, describing the Pacific as an "increasingly contested strategic environment."
New Zealand's government said Friday that China was acting more confidently and assertively in pursuing its interests in Asia, which had raised tensions with other countries including the United States.
As China had integrated into the international order, it had not adopted the same values around human rights and freedom of information that are championed by traditional leaders, a strategic defense policy statement released by New Zealand Defense Minister Ron Mark said.
The paper said that China was modernizing its military and growing its capabilities in a reflection of the nation's economic might and growing leadership ambitions. It said that New Zealand faced "compounding challenges of a scope and magnitude not previously seen in our neighborhood."
"The circumstances that some of our Pacific island nations find themselves in create opportunities for other players to take advantage," Mark told reporters, adding that accepting foreign loans could carry other obligations.
Mark declined to comment on the scale of threat posed by China.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the new pact was a continuation of a security agreement accepted by forum nation leaders in 2000. The Biketawa Declaration created a framework for collective responses to regional crises, such as the Australia-led multinational security force that was sent to the Solomon Islands in 2003 to end civil unrest. The mission only ended last year.
"It's important for us that the good relations continue with our near neighbors. We want to make sure from a security perspective, economic perspective, aid and development perspective, we've got a continuing good relationship," Dutton told Nine Network television.
China has emerged as a major donor in the South Pacific, including in forum countries Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu.
"China's reaching out across the world including into our region and we have a very good relationship with China," Dutton said. "We want all of that to continue, but in our neighborhood we have a responsibility to work with our neighbors."
In May, New Zealand significantly boosted the amount of aid money it spends in the Pacific by an extra 714 million New Zealand dollars ($500 million) over four years.
Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells' office did not immediately respond on Friday to a request for details on the Pacific security pact.
China protested in January when Fierravanti-Wells said Chinese aid programs in poor Pacific island countries were creating "white elephants" that threatened economic stability without delivering benefits.
Australia said last month that it would negotiate a bilateral security treaty with Vanuatu, weeks after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned China against building a military base in the former joint British-French colony.
In May, China and Vanuatu denied media reports that the Chinese had approached the tiny country, which has a population of 280,000, about building a permanent military presence in the South Pacific.
Turnbull said at the time that Australia "would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbors of ours."
New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern supported Australia's stance, saying her country takes "a strong position in the Pacific against militarization."