Prime minister says ‘the Pacific is our home’ as Beijing plans a regional security pact with almost a dozen island nations

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern says she believes the Pacific could meet its security needs internally, implying it should do so without Chinese intervention from China. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand is “ready to respond” to security needs in the Pacific, after it emerged China is planning a Pacific-wide security deal with almost a dozen island nations.

The prime minister, who is touring the US, said she believed the Pacific could meet its security needs internally, implying it should do so without intervention from China or elsewhere. “On anything related to security arrangements, we are very strongly of the view that we have within the Pacific the means and ability to respond to any security challenges that exist and New Zealand is willing to do that,” Ardern said.

“It’s not for us to speak on behalf of other Pacific nations but what I can say is, where that need exists, New Zealand stands ready to respond to it,” she said.

“The Pacific is our home. We considered the Pacific our family and where those needs exist, we are ready and willing to respond to that call.”

Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, will travel to Fiji on Thursday in an early sign of her determination to deepen the relationship with Pacific countries.

New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister, Nanaia Mahuta, does not currently have an equivalent trip booked, although Mahuta has held remote meetings with Pacific Island nations, and visited Fiji earlier in the year.

The most recent regional security deal proposed by China is by no means certain. Sources have told the Guardian that China’s proposed regional security deal had not been received well by all Pacific leaders. But it does increase the pressure on the larger Pacific players – particularly Australia and New Zealand – to bolster their relationships and partnerships within the region. Earlier in May, Mahuta told the Guardian that a shock security pact between China and Solomon Islands was evidence of “a relationship failure” and had taken both Australia and New Zealand by surprise.

New Zealand’s opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said news of the deal “begs the question: has our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Pacific missions been blind sided again?” In a morning radio appearance, Brownlee asked, “How didn’t they have some idea of why there was a 10-country visit by the Chinese foreign minister with a party of 20 others, and have some idea from their contacts in the Pacific what this was all about?”

Ardern was speaking to reporters after a meeting with senators and representatives in Washington DC. She said they had discussed “regional issues, the role of China in our region, the United States’ engagement with China”. Asked specifically about China’s new drafted Pacific deals, Ardern said: “I see it as China is trying to increase their engagement with sovereign nations – but expanding into a space where actually the need around security arrangements, we are able to meet within our region.”

New Zealand’s foreign policy strategy under Ardern and Mahuta has been to emphasise that multilateral responses, primarily the Pacific Islands Forum, should be the first port of call for any security discussions. “China is seeking to draw in a wide membership of the Pacific,” Ardern said. “From New Zealand’s perspective, we see it as incredibly important that the response to it and those discussions actually come from within the Pacific as well.

“The Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting will be incredibly important as an opportunity for the Pacific to canvass its view on that increasing presence and the actions of China to increase its role in the Pacific.”

On Wednesday, Mahuta met her Solomon Islands counterpart and announced New Zealand would renew its defence deployment to the country.

“New Zealand will continue to work in partnership to weather the profound challenges that face our region,” she said. “Our region faces a range of complex security challenges, including climate change and increased economic vulnerability as a result of Covid-19. Addressing these challenges requires sustained investment across the breadth of our region’s development priorities.”

Mahuta was not immediately available to comment on the most recent China/Pacific proposed deals.