In little more than a year an inside-out experiment at foreign policy making for New Zealand has been turned outside-in. Barely fifteen months ago Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta set out an agenda which began with the Treaty of Waitangi and sought to globalise indigenous values. But claims to New Zealand’s foreign policy uniqueness have been overtaken by events in Europe. Since Russia launched its devastating invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Jacinda Ardern’s government has been focused on expressing New Zealand’s solidarity with its larger western partners.
While more a follower than a leader New Zealand has nonetheless crossed two important policy thresholds in trying to keep pace with its traditional partners as they punish Moscow. First, the Ardern government eventually relented to pressure and introduced Russia-specific autonomous sanctions legislation. Second, despite its initial reluctance to provide military assistance, the Labour-led government also decided that New Zealand would help fund the United Kingdom’s provision of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine’s armed forces.
“Alongside our partners” is also how Mahuta has positioned New Zealand’s recent criticism of Russia’s cyberattacks and disinformation against Ukraine. Her suggestion that New Zealand is “responding to Putin’s aggression on all fronts” is an exaggeration, because even the most forward leaning of those partners is not going that far. But in working to keep pace with them, New Zealand is playing an alliance strategy, burnishing its reputation in Canberra, Washington and London.
On Russia, New Zealand is converging to the western norm. And while the western company that New Zealand is keeping believes Russia is today’s enemy, it is also seeing China as tomorrow’s adversary. Few countries have been more outspoken on that comparison as Australia. Scott Morrison (still Prime Minister at the time of writing) has warned of an “arc of autocracy” in which Russia and China are the principal elements. Arriving in the midst of an already tense election campaign, news of China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands was bound to be exploited by both Morrison’s coalition and Albanese’s surging ALP as they traded political blows on national security.
The opportunities seem plentiful for New Zealand to join a western geopolitical push-back on China in the South Pacific. Australia regards itself as the main gatekeeper for Pacific security, a role that is endorsed by Washington. For its part, New Zealand sometimes has a habit of treating its alliance relationship with Australia as an end in itself. And there is no part of the world where Australasian interests overlap more intensely than the South Pacific.
Moreover, New Zealand clearly shares some of Australia’s reservations about China’s growing role. Officials suggested in December’s Defence Assessment that New Zealand’s interests would be threatened by the establishment “a military base or dual-use facility in the Pacific” by a country with different values and security aims. The new deal between Honiara and Beijing has not brought that development to pass, despite some of the more feverish extrapolations on the other side of the Tasman Sea. But it has eased the way for a stronger PLA presence in the region. And it’s clearly been enough to have unsettled the Ardern government: “gravely concerning” was the Prime Minister’s blunt assessment.
In theory then, China’s new deal is another Pacific security problem which seems bound to glue together New Zealand and Australia. That appears to be the initial message from Peeni Henare. Just back from visits to Canberra and Suva, New Zealand’s Defence Minister played the trans-Tasman alliance card. "We've made it clear that we would stay in-step with our Australian friends on that one,” Henare said in explaining that New Zealand’s small contingent would remain in the Solomon Islands, having originally been deployed there last November. “We’ve got to have presence”, Henare insisted, “and we've got to be very clear and deliberate about what that presence looks like and in my discussions with Fiji and Australia we were both very much in alignment on that particular fact."
But in the Pacific, the alignment with Australia has its limits. New Zealand sometimes regards itself as a co-leader with Australia and sometimes a leader in its own right with its own approach. That is partly about geography and history, given New Zealand’s close cultural and historical connections to Polynesian parts of the Pacific, including the constitutional relationship with Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. In comparison to Australia, there is less tendency to rely on military influence. Instead, New Zealand presents itself as a small state with a special understanding of the worldviews of its even smaller neighbours. Rather than a preoccupation with great power competition, which Wellington knows is not the uppermost challenge for many of its Pacific Island partners, that means a focus on other problems, not the least of which is climate change.
One sign of that separate approach came after Australia’s entry into AUKUS. New Zealand welcomed greater American and British involvement in the region, Ardern said, but would look at AUKUS through a Pacific lens. On the new deal between Honiara and China, Mahuta’s warning against the perils of militarisation might not simply have been a signal to Beijing. It may also have been an indirect way of telling New Zealand’s traditional security partners not to overreact. “The first conversation should be to understand the nature of the arrangements”, she said in one interview, “because if we jump too quickly to a set of hypotheticals that aren’t confirmed … it’s not going to be helpful to the kind of conversation New Zealand believes would benefit the region.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that a single-minded focus on preserving western influence in the Pacific is at odds with the direction of travel in Mahuta’s still youthful foreign policy doctrine. And a few years ago New Zealand used its small state and Pacific credentials to help secure a two year stint on the Security Council, where it continued to rail against the veto. No less than three of the Council’s five permanent members are western countries. Powerful states of all types, even fellow democracies and traditional security partners, can harm New Zealand’s interests if they whittle away at the air and sea gaps which have protected the South Pacific from the excesses of Indo-Pacific geopolitical competition.
In its minor part in the effort to punish Russia and assist Ukraine, New Zealand can afford to fit in with the strategy that is being directed by the larger western capitals. But in the South Pacific, New Zealand has a more direct stake in the outcome and a strategy of its own to fashion. That means some choosing needs to be done. I don’t mean the tired old story of finding a balance between the US and China: New Zealand is too closely aligned to Washington for that to be a serious consideration, and its ties to Australia are even stronger. Instead New Zealand needs to find the right balance between joining in on the Australian-led management of South Pacific security and responding with its own recipe. A change of government in Canberra after Saturday’s contest might peg back the tensions between these two approaches. But it certainly won’t remove them entirely.
Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: NZDF personnel loading donated medical supplies for Ukraine in Malta, from NZDF Facebook page.