By Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - New Zealand released a defence policy statement on Thursday calling climate change its greatest security threat and stressed the importance of the issue to the geostrategically contested Pacific region, which is seeing increased influence from China.
The assessment came on the heels of a defence policy earlier this year that warned China's rising influence in the South Pacific could undermine regional stability, drawing a complaint from the Asian giant.
"It identifies climate change as one of the most significant security threats of our time, and one that is already having adverse impacts both at home and in New Zealand's neighbourhood," said Defence Minister Ron Mark in an emailed statement.
The report said that states could look to use assistance on climate change as a way to boost their influence and access in the region.
"Working with Pacific Island countries on climate change, including in the security sphere, is an opportunity to learn lessons from each other while further strengthening strategic partnerships," it said.
That underscored comments from Samoa's Prime Minsiter Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi who told Reuters in November that Australia and the United States should follow the lead of China and do more to prevent climate change, which would devastate many island nations.
"Traditional powers in the region have this anxiety about China's intentions and so they are looking to assure Pacific islands that they are listening to their concerns," said Wesley Morgan, an expert in Pacific politics at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.
The emergence of China as a key aid donor and major lender for Pacific countries has led to friction between the Asian giant and western nations, which boiled over at a recent APEC summit in Papua New Guinea.
China's foreign ministry has said it is helping Pacific nations with much needed assistance according to their wishes and is promoting their social and economic development.
New Zealand's defence minister said he was using the assessment on climate change to inform defence spending and investment plans set to be released next year.
New Zealand's government led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put combating climate change at the heart of its policies and on Wednesday announced a NZ$100 million ($68.62 million) investment fund to spur growth in projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
($1 = 1.4573 New Zealand dollars) (Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Michael Perry)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.