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Old Friends, New Challenges: New Zealand and the United States in the Asia-Pacific Century

For its size, New Zealand has been a significant provider of development assistance to the region in the post-World War Two period. We were part of the effort to provide support during the major economic crisis which hit Asia in the late 1990s. Today, we work closely with partner governments to tackle extreme poverty, particularly in rural areas. After the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami, we helped with relief alongside the United States and others, making our largest ever response to a disaster.

Our development assistance effort these days is focused primarily in the South Pacific. Constitutional and historical linkages, and cultural and family ties, mean we have a special responsibility towards our neighbourhood, alongside our close ally Australia.

Our near region faces serious challenges in the 21st century as globalisation quickens. Distance and isolation, fragile physical environments, limited natural resources, and vulnerability to natural disasters are all part of the Pacific reality. Its governments struggle to cope with adverse health, population, and employment trends. The region also faces challenges of governance, arising from weak or corroded state institutions, capacity and human resource constraints, and an uneasy tension between traditional power systems and contemporary demands for transparent, accountable government.

In parts of the Pacific, pockets of absolute poverty are growing. The socio-economic indicators of some countries in Melanesia are almost on a par with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Internal instability, land conflicts, and ethnic tensions further drive down standards of living. And compounding these internal challenges, the region is grappling with challenges arising from the wider global environment, such as trans-national organised crime. We are working with our Pacific neighbours to strengthen their capacity, including in counter-terrorism, to respond to trans-national threats.

Traditionally, New Zealand's work in the Pacific has emphasised good governance and economic and social development. But the last few years have also seen us engaged as a major provider of security, as a number of countries have teetered on the brink of civil war and anarchy.

We have deployed forces to restore stability in Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Each situation has called for a different kind of response. In each case, we have worked in partnership with Australia.

New Zealand deployed military personnel to East Timor in 1999 and stayed for three years until after independence and the holding of democratic elections. Our focus then shifted to development assistance. But democracy takes longer than a few years to take hold. Major civil and political unrest returned to East Timor last year. We again deployed forces at the request of the East Timor government, and are set to remain there at least until after new elections have been held later this year.

In the Solomon Islands, the response to widespread instability came from within the region. In mid-2003 the Solomons Government asked for assistance under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum, the key regional political institution established in the early 1970s. The resulting mission has incorporated civil, military, and police elements, and takes a holistic approach to stabilisation, including long-term state building as well as security. After the immediate task of re-establishing security, the focus of the mission broadened to helping the government strengthen its institutions and to supporting development.

More recently, the operating mandate of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has been challenged from within the country. Our presence there needs a supportive environment, and we are working to achieve that by promoting dialogue between the Solomons and its regional partners.

New Zealand has learnt from these and other experiences in our region, that post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction will rarely follow a positive linear trend. There will inevitably be setbacks. Our engagement needs to be long term, acknowledging that recovery is often the work of at least a generation, and not of just a few years.