Perhaps aside from a few of its Pacific neighbours, not many countries treat Australia as a major power. But that is exactly what New Zealand does. This means that Australia constitutes more than New Zealand’s most important diplomatic relationship, as significant as that may be. It also makes Australia essential to explaining the foreign policy choices New Zealand makes beyond the trans-Tasman relationship and how these choices are depicted and understood.
There are three ways of viewing Australia's significance to Wellington. In the first instance, and most obviously, Australia is a partner with cooperative endeavours in all sorts of functional policy areas. But secondly, Australia is also something of a competitor for New Zealand: contrasts with Australia, and how Australia does things, are often used to define New Zealand as a distinct foreign policy actor. And yet thirdly, Australia is also a facilitator for New Zealand foreign policy: Australia helps provide space and opportunities for the choices that Wellington makes. Yet none of this is automatic or inevitable, and in the current circumstances of global and regional flux, nobody should assume Australia’s role can be assumed as a given.
Australia sits on top of the short list of New Zealand's most important bilateral relationships. Of these there are three; Australia, China, and the United States. Australia is also alone in its own company here. New Zealand has no other relationship with the same intensity of connections across such an extensive range of policy areas. This must include Closer Economic Relations, whose establishment rates as one of the most significant achievements for New Zealand foreign policy in the last two generations. It includes Australia's role as New Zealand's one and only active military ally. Extensive interagency cooperation across the Tasman is also part of this list. So too is Australia's position as New Zealand's leading partner in the South Pacific including in a series of regional interventions: Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Bougainville, and Tonga and many examples of disaster relief in this nearer region. There is also a multiplicity of very close people to people connections which is unrivalled by any other of New Zealand's bilateral links.
We have become so used to these intimate connections that we often assume them to be permanent, unchanging, and so natural as to require only a modicum of attention. But nothing could be further from the truth. CER, for example, did not come down from the sky. It was the result of intense effort on both sides of the Tasman in the 1970s and early 1980s. And despite the ANZAC mythology, New Zealand and Australia did not enjoy continually close bilateral peacetime defence ties until moves were made to cement that relationship less than 40 years ago. For only with the end of British power East of Suez and America’s post-Vietnam recalibration did Australia and New Zealand need to face up to being alone together.
The effort required then to establish these close ties means that effort is required now to sustain them. This is not least because Australia has other and larger suitors. For Australia, New Zealand may offer a uniquely close relationship. But this does not make it a more significant one than Australia's own major power connections. New Zealand does not make the grade alongside the United States, China, Indonesia, and possibly Japan, as Australia's major power priorities. Australia also wants to bring India into this mix, as reflected in Canberra's Indo-Pacific preferences. And the trend in some of Australia's relationships with less than great powers such as Singapore may be moving in a more intense direction than the trend in relations with New Zealand.
New Zealand’s Competitor
We can't explain all that Australia means for New Zealand's foreign policy by way of the functional cooperation that occurs between the two countries in trade, security and many other areas. Australia is more than New Zealand's closest partner. It is also a constant point of comparison for New Zealand, often competitively so.
So often we define ourselves as not Australians. Until the 1950s and 60s, many New Zealanders may have thought of themselves as British, but we were not Australians! And New Zealand's sense of foreign policy independence and autonomy, while frequently read as a commentary on our attitudes to great power America, is often an implicit comparison to Australia, a very close ally of the United States.
When we think about China policy, the first point of New Zealand comparison, and contrast, is Australia’s policy. In the South Pacific, we like to think of ourselves, and be thought of by others, as the more sensitive and understanding actor in comparison to Australia. New Zealand may even get reputational benefits when Australia stumbles on the international stage, as appears to be happening on climate change.
As a result of all of this, avoiding brand confusion with Australia has often become a New Zealand foreign-policy obsession. And to this is connected a New Zealand inclination towards moral indignation which can often become moral self-righteousness. We don't, after all, place migrants in detention centres offshore.
New Zealand’s Facilitator
Before going too far in this direction, it's important to consider a third aspect where Australia is crucially important in New Zealand's foreign policy. Australia has been as facilitator for New Zealand's engagement with its region in the world, creating space for New Zealand's choices.
Canberra's unstinting commitment to the United States alliance over several decades, to take one example, helped sustain a regional equilibrium where it was safer for New Zealand to be autonomous. And while New Zealand policymakers may have done things differently in their approach to China, they are still likely to have welcomed Australia's more robust rhetoric in regard to Beijing's unwanted behaviour in the South China Sea.
New Zealand's engagement with Asia is almost unthinkable without Australia's focus on the region, including as one of the grandparents of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum, early pillars of the regional multilateralism to which New Zealand attaches so much importance. New Zealand's assistance on high standard and high quality free trade agreements is based firmly on the experience of CER with Australia.
In the South Pacific, New Zealand’s made with care aid policy is buttressed by Australia's aid largesse. (Encouraging the continuation of the latter has been a major preoccupation for Foreign Minister Winston Peters). Moreover, Australia is central to local aspects of the rules-based order which features so prominently in New Zealand policy.
Are things changing?
New Zealanders may be too aware of the competitor element of Australia's place in our outlook and identity: the compare and contrast role often reigns supreme. We probably take for granted the partner aspect, forgetting the bilateral relationship was not nearly as close in many earlier generations. New Zealanders almost seem surprised when Australia's domestic politics doesn't make room for our concerns and interests.
As for the third aspect, we may often simply be unaware of Australia's facilitator role. But we need to remind ourselves today that Australia has had a facilitator too. For decades Canberra has relied on Washington’s underwriting of both international institutions and the Asian power equilibrium. That gave Australian space for its own choices that benefitted New Zealand too. But some of this facilitator role on Washington’s part is now in doubt.
This will change Australia's confidence and its approach: in fact, we are probably already seeing signs of that. The Indo-Pacific trend in Australian foreign policy might be interpreted as one of Canberra's attempts to recalibrate its connections with the great powers of the region, not unlike Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific community idea. These changes do have implications for the New Zealand’s bilateral relationship with Australia, not least to the extent to which New Zealand can be overlooked in some of these grand schemes.
Australia's current moments of strategic uncertainty might still be a recipe for closer transTasman ties. But quite possibly it will not.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. This post is based on the author’s address on 15 October 2018 to the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 75th Anniversary Conference.