Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is slowly but surely shifting New Zealand’s foreign policy toward the West.
That was the underlying theme of a keynote address by Ardern this week. She mentioned China only once by name when she spoke to the U.S. Business Summit in Auckland on Monday, but Beijing was clearly on her mind throughout the 3,000-word address.
Some of the hardest-hitting passages came early in the speech and appeared deliberately indirect and oblique, leaving it up to listeners to make up their own minds on the intended likely target of the prime minister’s words.
For example, Ardern said that New Zealand had “held firmly to our independent foreign policy but also to our values. When we see a threat to the rules-based order we rely on, we act.”
While most people would immediately think of New Zealand’s recent moves against Russia – which Ardern discussed in subsequent parts of the speech – the lack of specificity of these initial remarks also allowed for more liberal interpretations involving China.
U.S. President Joe Biden employed similar “double duty” tactics in his landmark address in Warsaw in late March, although he was less subtle than Ardern. Biden told his audience in Poland that “the forces of autocracy have revived all across the globe. Its hallmarks are familiar ones — contempt for the rule of law, contempt for democratic freedom, contempt for the truth itself.”
Ardern’s heavy focus throughout her speech on the importance of rules and agreements was another way to signal that New Zealand is currently on the same page as the rest of the West. Ardern gave her audience something of a history lesson, reminding them of the role New Zealand played in the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 and in the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the forerunner of today’s World Trade Organization (WTO).
Given that some of the West’s biggest complaints about China relate to the country’s trade practices – such as supposedly unfair subsidies and the imposition of tariffs to punish countries for unrelated matters, as Australia found out in 2020 – the purpose of Ardern’s history lesson on the origins of the WTO was obvious.
Of course, all of Ardern’s indirectness and obliqueness was not without good reason. With a third of New Zealand’s exports heading to China every year, Wellington can ill afford to get offside with Beijing. The prime minister would be fully aware of the sensitivities
Indeed, until last year, Wellington thought that it had found a way to thread the needle and balance the competing interests of both China and the United States. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has forced New Zealand to align itself more closely with the West. This new position understandably carries a degree of unfamiliarity and awkwardness for New Zealand policymakers, who had been quite happy with the status quo.
But to be fair, a repositioning process of sorts had been underway for some time – and perhaps really began in earnest almost exactly a year ago, when Ardern addressed a similar business summit on New Zealand’s relationship with China.
In that May 2021 speech, Ardern said differences with China were “becoming harder to reconcile” and cited several sensitive issues, such as human rights in Xinjiang and the backsliding of democracy in Hong Kong. She also pointedly noted that New Zealand was a “strong supporter of the rules, norms, and international frameworks that govern global affairs.”
At the time, Ardern’s critique of China – still modest in scope and tempered by ample praise –seemed like a recalibration following questions about New Zealand’s commitment to the Western cause. In April 2021, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta signaled that she was unwilling to sign up to Five Eyes joint statements criticizing China.
One year later, and with Biden’s calls for “unity” among the West very much being the order of the day, Ardern’s speech was never going to include any major criticism of U.S. positions. This week, the closest Ardern came to criticism was with her comments on U.S. reluctance to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was finalized after the Trump administration abruptly withdrew from the grouping in 2017. Ardern very gently summed up New Zealand’s position by saying “it would be our preference to see the United States enter the CPTTP.”
Of course, this was not really criticism at all, given that it would very much be the U.S. leadership’s preferred option as well. However, current opinions in Congress make U.S. entry into the CPTPP a non-starter. This explains why Ardern talked up an alternative and much weaker U.S. proposal called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) that concentrates mainly on trade rules and standards, rather than on market access itself.
For those not interested in reading the tea leaves on Ardern’s speech, a top White House official addressing the same conference was refreshingly open – at least by diplomatic standards – about U.S. expectations of New Zealand and the nature of the perceived threat from China.
Kurt Campbell, who helped to thaw New Zealand’s once-icy relations with the United States during the Obama administration and now serves as Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, told this week’s summit that there had been times in the past when New Zealand had not been strong on “hard security.” He added that “there is a beginning of a discussion and debate about why New Zealand has to do more.”
Making clear that the debate was not just about Ukraine, Campbell described the future of the Indo-Pacific as the “the long game for us.” He also drew a straight line between Beijing and Moscow, describing relations between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin as a “no-holds barred partnership.”
Campbell’s description appeared to be slightly provocative spin on the “friendship between the two states has no limits” line that Xi and Putin included in their joint statement when they met at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in early February.
As usual, Ardern’s latest foreign policy address was an exercise in reading between the lines. But the lines are certainly becoming clearer.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.