Last week’s speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered the clearest statement yet of how her Labour government wants to manage the challenges of a more contested region.
The immediate headlines were all about the Prime Minister’s use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, a shift away from New Zealand’s longstanding desire to see itself as at home in the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region, not least as host of APEC this year. Because ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ is a framework promoted enthusiastically in Washington and elsewhere, Ardern’s choice of language prompted some to claim the PM “has firmly aligned New Zealand with the United States worldview”. But a closer look at the speech suggests Ardern’s government wants to embrace Indo-Pacific on its own terms.
But beyond the change of label, what does that actually mean?
For those who feel New Zealand has drifted too far from its traditional friends and who worry about post-Winston Peters foreign policy settings, the speech provided some encouragement. Ardern said “our independent foreign policy has never meant that we pursue our objectives on our own...We look forward to working with the Biden Administration on regional issues. New Zealand’s relationship with the United States has deep roots, built over many decades of cooperation. We share values and have common interests in how the region operates.” After a fractious few months Australia was also lauded as an “indispensable partner and ally” with “a strong track record of contributing in the region”.
But to assume the embrace of Indo-Pacific signals a “firm alignment” with anyone else’s strategy overlooks the rest of Ardern’s speech. As the prime minister put it, “while we welcome the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, we do so based on the principles that have served New Zealand well and are consistent with our values.” This list includes respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, a region that is open for trade, that is inclusive, upholds sovereignty, and where “states are honest about their foreign policy objectives and initiatives beyond their borders”.
None of these is new. Winston Peters gave them a good airing in a speech in New Delhi in February 2020 (remarkably the last time a New Zealand foreign minister was out of the country). But going further than any of her ministers has previously, Prime Minister Ardern made clear that two of the principles – openness and inclusivity – were especially important for New Zealand. As she pointedly noted, “often language and geographic ‘frames’ are used as subtext, or a tool to exclude some nations from dialogue. Our success will depend on working with the widest possible set of partners.”
In other words, New Zealand might be using the language of Indo-Pacific but it doesn’t follow that it wants to be drawn into a regional framework that by definition excludes China. Indeed, rather than use Indo-Pacific as a way to talk about competition with China, Ardern’s speech used it to emphasise the need for collective cooperation – concerted international action to take on critical challenges such as COVID. And with no small irony, her example of what this cooperation might look like was the special meeting of APEC – Asia Pacific – leaders she hosted just a few days later.
Ardern’s inclusive framing was also more than simply hedging on China. Whereas Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Biden have recently talked about an existential struggle between democracies and autocracies, Ardern was more pragmatic. Her speech closed with the comment that New Zealand would “encourage partners to continue on the pathway of democratic reform” and hoped for a “freer and more open region”, but it drew few ideological lines. New Zealand governments know when they search for Indo-Pacific partners, the list of democracies is small and the list of liberal democracies smaller still.
That made the extended discussion of the role of New Zealand’s Southeast Asian neighbours – who have their own inclusive take on Indo-Pacific – all the more interesting. These are tough times for ASEAN, struggling to forge an effective response to the coup in Myanmar and pressure from Beijing in the South China Sea. Ardern addressed both, and said ASEAN offers a partnership that allows New Zealand to pursue cooperation that is “principled and pragmatic” and which gets us a seat at “the top table for strategic discussions – the East Asia Summit.” For all the speculation about the possible expansion of the Quad, it seems New Zealand still sees its interests well-served by ASEAN’s inclusive regional architecture.
If the Ardern government is looking to put Labour fingerprints on a foreign policy that used to be run by Winston Peters, this speech did its part, for example through its references to Peter Fraser and Norman Kirk. But despite the headlines, there was little radically new here.New Zealand is deeply concerned about a regional order that is under pressure from the simultaneous challenges of an assertive China, a raging pandemic, and the perils of climate change. But if the way the Ardern government talks about the region has changed from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, the way it wants to navigate those challenges – primarily through inclusive multilateral frameworks (including APEC and the East Asia Summit) and the lodestar of the independent foreign policy – seems to show an awful lot of continuity.
David Capie is Professor of International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington and Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies.
Image credit: PM Ardern at the NZIIA Annual Conference, NZIIA.