On November 4, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave her first major foreign policy speech on Aotearoa New Zealand’s policy in the Pacific. It was highly anticipated amongst Pacific watchers. Mahuta had signalled at the outset of her term that she intended to deliver a foreign policy distinct from that of her predecessor Winston Peters. At its core is New Zealand’s policy transition from the Pacific Reset, launched by Peters in 2018, to a Pacific Resilience partnership approach announced by Mahuta and laid out in a subsequently released Cabinet paper. Last Friday, the 'Partnering for Resilience' approach received its first international mention at the Australia-Aotearoa New Zealand Foreign Minister Consultations.
Since Mahuta was appointed foreign minister in late 2020, she has given a number of speeches that have sought to define her foreign policy agenda and approach. It is helpful to consider this latest speech in the context of earlier statements, notably Mahuta’s inaugural foreign policy speech at Waitangi, her dragon and the taniwha speech to the New Zealand China Council, and her address to the Otago Foreign Policy School. The common theme is the centrality of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to New Zealand’s foreign policy principles and praxis; and that New Zealand’s approach to the Pacific is anchored in New Zealand’s connections to Polynesia.
To frame this approach, Mahuta employed a whakatauāki, or proverb, Ka pū te rūhā, ka hāo te rangatahi (As the old net is cast aside a new net goes fishing) noting its appropriateness in referring to the Reset as building the net – or architecture – to enable New Zealand’s policy shift towards the Pacific; and the Resilience focus as learning how to ‘utilise the net’ for the benefit of all. Importantly, this also includes embedding Pacific cultural frameworks in daily practice, and strengthening cultural competence and knowledge of the Pacific.
Mahuta also outlined five principles which would guide New Zealand’s engagement with the Pacific: Tātai Hono (the recognition of deep and enduring whakapapa connections); Tātou Tātou (all of us together); Whāia te Taumata Ōhanga (journey towards a circular economy); Turou Hawaiiki (navigating together); and Arongia ki Rangiātea (focus towards excellence). It is clear Mahuta is particularly concerned with ‘how’ the business of foreign policy is conducted and that ideational shifts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are essential to ensure this approach is enduring. These principles presumably build on the four foreign policy values outlined at Waitangi.
Which brings us to the prevailing question: what is Mahuta’s Pacific policy? The centrality of the Pacific is at the heart of the minister's foreign policy thinking. Mahuta is also, and rightly, committed to re-imagining New Zealand’s place in the Pacific starting with how New Zealand engages with the region. It is also clear that Pasifika in New Zealand are integral to Mahuta’s Pacific policy. This reiterates the importance of considering the implications of policy in the Pacific and the potential overlap in domestic policy objectives.
Mahuta’s vision of the Pacific is through the prism of Polynesia. This is not surprising. New Zealand’s Pasifika diaspora is largely Polynesian, New Zealand’s constitutional responsibilities are to the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, and, as Mahuta herself said, “Aotearoa New Zealand draws its whakapapa connection from Polynesia, our whanaungatanga reinforces our special relationship to Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa; The Blue Ocean continent.” This connection – at times equally fluid and complex - was identified as a strength under the Pacific Reset.
However, this is a tension which will need to be addressed. The Pacific Reset was nicknamed the ‘Poly Reset’ in some quarters because of this perception that Polynesian priorities and worldviews drive New Zealand’s Pacific policy. This is at odds with the depth of New Zealand’s engagement with Melanesian states which has occurred at pivotal points in regional history: the Bougainville peace process, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, and, of course, Fiji.
Furthermore, the most significant rupture in regionalism – the decision this year by the five Micronesian states to leave the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) - has its roots in Micronesian concerns that the Polynesian bloc in the PIF has dominated regional leadership positions and that this in turn is supported by New Zealand. Whereas Polynesia was referred to four times in Mahuta’s speech, neither Melanesia or Micronesia were mentioned at all.
In that light, there were a number of key ‘touchstones’ that were missing from the speech. Pacific regionalism is under acute pressure, however, the speech lacked an explicit statement on the importance of regionalism. Reference was made to regional architecture drawing its strength from a “Pacific Way” ‘that seeks to establish rules and norms embedded in tikanga and Pacific-led solutions’ and working together for the ‘greater region’s strategic good’. This was clever signalling to the Pacific Way concept, touted as foundational to Pacific diplomacy, however the concept of the Pacific Way itself is under scrutiny. First coined by Fiji’s first prime minister and paramount chief, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, at the United Nations General Assembly in 1970 in reference to Fiji’s peaceful transition to independence, more recently FSM President David Panuelo referred to the split at the Pacific Islands Forum as a failure of the Pacific Way. Notably, Mahuta made direct reference to the Pacific Islands Forum’s ‘leadership for stability, peace and prosperity’ at the Australian-New Zealand foreign ministers’ press conference in the Blue Mountains last Friday.
Mahuta’s speech also made no mention of key regional concepts such as the ‘Blue Pacific’ – likened to a collective identity - or key regional strategies such as the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent which will likely be adopted at the Leaders’ Meeting in 2022. Moreover, the speech lacked references to human rights (included in the cabinet paper) and democracy at a time when both are under duress in parts of the Pacific. There was passing reference to Australia as an ‘indispensable partner’ – reiterated at the foreign ministers meeting - and a commitment to working with a range of partners to ‘build resilience by promoting Pacific priorities, Pacific ownership and the ‘Pacific way’’. This also suggests that Mahuta’s audience was more domestic than regional.
Surprisingly, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) was omitted from the shopping list of government agencies and non-government actors from whom New Zealand would draw its approach and resources. This overlooks the critical role the NZDF plays in the region from conflict prevention to maritime surveillance to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – the backbone of many Pacific economies – as well as the Ministry of Defence’s efforts to articulate New Zealand policy under the Pacific Reset through its Advancing Pacific Partnerships assessment.
Not surprisingly, there was no mention of strategic competition in the speech, however, Mahuta briefly touched on it during the well-managed Q&A. Her comments reflected her earlier speeches; that competition in the region is greater than it has ever been before and that the economic vulnerability of Pacific states is a concern. Here resilience plays a critical role. A resilient Pacific will be better able to withstand the pressures of strategic competition, drive Pacific priorities, and manage unintended consequences.
Mahuta’s Pacific Resilience speech was more vision than strategy. Clear signalling on the promotion of ‘Pacific priorities and Pacific ownership’ and a ‘strengths-based approach’ is welcomed but how New Zealand will operationalise this is less clear. Moreover, references to collective interests in the region could have been articulated better. What are these collective interests? And again, how will New Zealand pursue them? And perhaps even more importantly, how will collective interests and national interests (and values) be balanced? What is clear is that, like the Reset, the shift to a focus on resilience has the capacity to be transformational if New Zealand’s engagement with the Pacific is genuinely able to move to partnership.
Anna Powles is Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.
Image credit: Nanaia Mahuta at the Australia-New Zealand Ministerial Consultations. From Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne's Facebook page.