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Pacific leaders demand answers from NZ over alleged spying

Pacific leaders are demanding answers from New Zealand following the revelations from leaker Edward Snowden that this country spies on its Pacific Islands neighbours.

John Key attends Pacific forum. Source: 1 NEWS

And there are indications of a fallout that's likely to damage our relationships within the region.

Coups, riots and regional instability would make it no surprise if New Zealand spied on its neighbours. But allegations it has gathered up phone calls, email and internet data from Pacific countries and passed it to the United States has been greeted grimly by Pacific leaders.

"I am not happy. If it happened, New Zealand has breached the trust that has been established between the two countries," says Akilisi Pohiva, Tongan Prime Minister.

Steven Ratuva of the Macmillan Brown Research Centre for Pacific Studies says regionalism operates on the basis of trust and consensus. "And that is going to be broken."

Both the Tongan and Samoan governments say they'll be asking New Zealand for answers, Samoa treating the allegations with caution.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi says allegations that Samoa is being spied on are "quite ridiculous".

The recently-elected Tongan Prime Minister says his island nation is at the mercy of bigger countries.

"Whether we like it or not, they can do it," Mr Pohiva says.

So why is the US so interested in the Pacific? It's over a battle of influence in a strategically important region bordering US waters.

Following the Fiji coup of 2006, the military regime formed a close alliance with China, ditching its traditional partners of New Zealand and Australia. China also has strong diplomatic and economic ties with seven other Pacific countries.

France also comes into the equation as it oversees New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

"The one thing that may be a thorny issue for the Government to address is that these revelations have it that New Zealand is spying on French territory," says Paul Buchanan, a security expert. "They better have French permission to do that. If they don't then that could become a diplomatic issue."

Also a diplomatic issue is how any collected data might be used. "It's going to be used as a political leverage by China, by Fiji as a means by which they can advance their own interests at the cost of New Zealand," says Mr Ratuva.

This leaves New Zealand on the backfoot while it answers some tough questions from its Pacific Island neighbours.