Wed, May 16, 2018 - Page 16 News List

New Zealand eyes Pacific team to stave off China

AFP, WELLINGTON

The New Zealand government yesterday said it has examined the possibility of setting up a Pacific islands Super Rugby team, reportedly to help offset China’s rising influence in the region.

The team would be known as “Pacific Force” and feature a combination of players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, New Zealand’s TV3 reported.

The Suva-based side would play home matches in all three nations, as well as Auckland and Sydney, which have large Pacific populations, it said.

“Part of the plan is that rugby can be a diplomatic force to counter China’s influence in the Pacific,” the report said. “The idea is that rugby will help keep hearts and minds away from China, which is saturating the region with money to obtain influence.”

New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters earlier this year expressed “strategic anxiety” over the Pacific — diplomatic code for Beijing’s rising influence among island nations.

Australia’s Lowy Institute estimates that China provided US$1.78 billion in aid, including concessional loans, to Pacific nations between 2006 and 2016.

New Zealand and its Pacific neighbors share a passion for rugby and the islands have long been a hotbed of player talent.

The New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association said the government had only carried out a feasibility study, which reportedly cost NZ$80,000 (US$55,301).

Association chief Rob Nichol said Wellington was not actually looking at funding the team itself, which would cost many millions.

“[The study] raised as many questions as it answered... To suggest plans are afoot and it’s all going to happen is a bit premature,” he told Radio Sport.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that her government had carried out the study, although she was unaware of it until the media reports.

Ardern appeared to balk at the prospect of New Zealand using its aid budget to fund a commercial rugby enterprise in the Pacific.

“It certainly wouldn’t be something, right off the bat, that I would have thought would fulfill our criteria,” she told Newshub.

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