New Zealand's New Foreign Policy


Photo source: Voice of America

By Naveed Qazi

New Zealand’s international relations are going in a new direction. For this, Winston Peters, the new foreign minister, is already setting a change agenda.

As expected, this includes a more pro-US positioning when it comes to the Pacific. Peters sought to align New Zealand more closely with the United States under his ‘Pacific Reset’ policy that he launched while serving as foreign minister under Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-New Zealand First coalition government from 2017-2020.

Peters is wasting no time in getting back to serve a sort of candid foreign affairs. Just three days after being sworn in as a minister, he gave his first speech on foreign policy at the US Business Summit in Auckland in December 2023.

He was lavish in his praise for the United States in his address, arguing that Washington had been ‘instrumental in the Pacific’s success.’ But he noted: ‘there is more to do and not a moment to lose. We will not achieve our shared ambitions if we allow time to drift.’ Adding that ‘speed and intensity’ would be needed, Peters ascertained that ‘the good news is that New Zealand stands ready to play its part.’

The timing of the speech is a sort of augury that New Zealand’s new, yet very familiar foreign affairs minister is unlikely to wait around when it comes to making major decisions. It was an important, agenda-setting address.

There were strong hints that New Zealand’s new government – a coalition of the National Party, ACT Party, and Peters’ New Zealand First – wants to move swiftly when it comes to Wellington’s potential involvement in Pillar II of the AUKUS defence pact, which currently involves Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Peters later disclosed in a speech that he had already talked to Judith Collins, the new defence minister, about New Zealand’s AUKUS stance.

The previous Labour government’s position was that AUKUS remained a hypothetical question, while no formal offer existed for New Zealand to join Pillar II.

It seems that New Zealand is at least ‘open to conversations’ about joining the pact in some form at this stage. Labour’s expedited release of three major defence strategy documents in August 2023, just before the election campaign, laid the groundwork for at least formal consideration of involvement in AUKUS.

The reports also paved the way for New Zealand to spend vastly more on its military and to take a more security-focused approach to the Pacific – recommendations that Peters will probably be keen to implement.

Wellington and Washington have been becoming closer since November 2010, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited New Zealand’s capital to sign the ‘Wellington Declaration.’ The relatively short agreement served to clear the air after decades of checkered bilateral relations stemming from the Fourth Labour Government’s introduction of a nuclear-free policy in the 1980s.

Going nuclear-free (which prevented visits from US warships) saw New Zealand cast out as a US ally in the past. Washington formally suspended its obligations to Wellington under the ANZUS defence treaty in 1986. But nearly 40 years on, New Zealand-US relations are rapidly deepening, a trend that has been accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western concerns over China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.

In The Diplomat, Geoffrey Miller wrote: ‘Since February 2022, New Zealand has imposed sanctions on Russia, joined US-led groupings such as Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and sent its prime ministers to successive NATO summits. In May 2022, Jacinda Ardern visited Joe Biden at the White House, where a 3,000-word joint statement called for new resolve and closer cooperation.’

A string of senior US officials visited New Zealand in 2023, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, and the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell (who Biden recently nominated to become his new deputy secretary of state).

If New Zealand does join AUKUS, it could spell the effective end of the country’s ‘independent foreign policy,’ thinks Miller. The ANZUS break-up of the late 1980s, the end of the Cold War, and the acceleration of globalisation had allowed New Zealand to free itself from blocs. Wellington talked to anyone and everyone, building solid, trade-focused relations with China and others in the Global South – while not neglecting Western partners, including the United States.

Peters may think the current geopolitical environment justifies a new approach.

This added to criticism in August 2023, when the new defence blueprint showed New Zealand was ‘abandoning its capacity to think for itself and instead is cutting and pasting from 5 Eyes partners.’

With Luxon passing up on the opportunity to attend COP28 in Dubai at the weekend, Peters will have the chance to make the government’s first ministerial trip to the Middle East to begin this dialogue. The Gulf states would be a natural starting point for these discussions.

Peters has no shortage of global issues to address. And there could be some major changes ahead for New Zealand's foreign policy.



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