Meetings between New Zealand and Australian foreign ministers are a regular occurrence. They rarely produce moments of novelty or excitement in Trans-Tasman relations. But on the occasion of Julie Bishop’s visit to meet Winston Peters at picturesque Waiheke Island, we have good reasons to pay close attention. On the assumption that the two governments will release a readout of their meeting, here are the five things I think need to be included.
First, while it may seem completely routine for the two foreign ministers to emphasise the importance of the trans-Tasman relationship, that point is more poignant than usual. It would be a further signal of the determination on both sides of the ditch to get beyond the noisy atmospherics over the Manus detainees and claims of political interference.
Third, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program is the obvious wider Asia-Pacific issue of common concern for Australia and New Zealand. There are many indications that the Trump Administration is seriously considering using force against North Korea sometime before the end of this year.
The two trans-Tasman allies may not have identical views on the various strands of Washington’s approach. New Zealand has focused on asserting the importance of diplomacy and economic sanctions. Canberra does too, but it is also more inclined to support Washington’s build-up of military pressure. But neither Canberra nor Wellington has any interest in seeing Asia’s long interstate peace come to an end. It would be good to see some joint language which makes that point clear.
But that aim requires the United States and China to work closely together on North Korea. My fourth wish is for Bishop and Peters to point to the importance of great power collaboration on the region’s most pressing security issue. Readers may be a bit doubtful on this score. Michael Powles recently argued in these pages that Australia was working with the United States to persuade New Zealand to support the containment of China.
But I think the situation is more complex than this. Australia's Defence Minister, Marise Payne, recently endorsed the Trump Administration’s National Defense Strategy which announced a determination to treat both Russia and China as America’s most dangerous competitors. But one of Payne’s most senior cabinet colleagues argued that Canberra took a ‘different perspective on Russia and China’ and did not see them as posing direct military threats to Australia. That colleague was none other than Julie Bishop whose Department issued a Foreign Policy White Paper just a few months ago which had some more conciliatory angles on the People's Republic than we sometimes expect from Canberra.
Does this mean that we can ever expect Australia to see the region through New Zealand’s spectacles? Absolutely not. But it may provide an opportunity for the two foreign ministers to lay out some more common ground on some of the Asia-Pacific’s more delicate regional issues. That has been done before at the most senior level, including on the South China Sea. And the more that we can find out about the Ardern government’s appetite for vocalising New Zealand’s foreign policy concerns - my fifth wish - the better. And who else to do that with than your most trusted and closest partner?
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
Image: Palm Beach, Waiheke Island. Photo reproduced under Creative Commons.