Aotearoa New Zealand’s foreign policy has been grounded in pragmatism and normative idealism. The recent release of a U.S.-Aotearoa New Zealand joint statement is a welcome re-embrace of a more values-based foreign policy for the country. Over the past several decades, the New Zealand government has been increasingly pragmatic in prioritizing its economic interests, and has been less vocal in terms of its response to human rights issues with China, its largest export market. This unwillingness to criticize Chinese actions, and to place economics ahead of values became particularly apparent in the reluctance to join its Five Eyes intelligence partners (Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and the United States) in condemning China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The joint statement statement, released on May 31 after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., contains significant references to the importance of a liberal values and the rule-based international order.
The statement is wide-ranging, covering a set of mutual interests and aspirations shared across the globe, but more specifically in the Pacific. These include a commitment to the rule-based international order and human rights as well as promoting “democratic governance, free and fair elections, media freedom, and transparency,” pursuing multilateralism, highlighting the challenges of extremism to democratic states, addressing COVID-19 and global health issues, policing and unregulated fishing. Importantly for New Zealand and the Pacific Island states, it also includes a commitment to implement climate change mitigation measures.
Unlike earlier statements such as the Wellington Declaration (2010) and Washington Declaration (2012), which focus on the two countries “strategic partnership,” the recent joint statement includes additional normative language. The statement makes some of New Zealand’s most explicit criticisms to date regarding Chinses violations of civil rights in Xinjiang, “the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” and New Zealand’s opposition to “unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that run counter to the rules-based international order.”
It also criticized the recent China-Solomon Islands security arrangement, noting that “the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state [China] that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries.” This statement earned the ire of Chinese officials who accused Ardern and Biden of trying to “deliberately hype up” the issue of increased Chinese security efforts in the Pacific.
The response to the joint statement and the changing strategic environment in the Pacific was relatively predictable. On the one hand, critics focused on the lack of interest that the government exhibited toward its Pacific neighbors. While Chinese diplomatic efforts have become more salient across the region, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has made only one trip to a Pacific Island state (Fiji) since she was appointed in November 2020. As Marion Crawshaw, a former New Zealand diplomat with extensive Pacific experience tweeted: “Maintaining the ability to follow our own path in the Pacific has always required focus, attention & careful prioritisation. The need right now is for a visible lift to our attention and [relationships] right across the Pacific.”
On the other hand, there has been commentary that the statement aligns New Zealand too closely with an American-centric view of the Pacific, thus further entangling the area in the deepening China-U.S. rivalry. This critique feeds back into discourse that implies that New Zealand is being coerced into abandoning its traditional independent foreign policy as part of a U.S. effort to create an anti-Chinese coalition.
Yet from another perspective it appears that the joint statement has re-prioritized the traditional and practical importance of liberal values and the rule-based international order that operates through multilateral institutions in New Zealand foreign policy. This normative foreign policy is integral to New Zealand identity today and has been an important aspect of New Zealand’s small state diplomacy since its initial moves on the world stage in the League of Nations.
In the 1940s, Prime Minister Peter Fraser was a major influence at the San Francisco Conference, which established the United Nations. Fraser insisted that small states be treated as equals to the major powers and hoped to establish a viable collective security regime that protected small states. Similarly, New Zealand was an active participant in the process that led up to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Later, in the face of the 1970s Cold War mentalities, Norman Kirk’s government took positions on international affairs that did not always accord with those of New Zealand’s American, British, and Australian allies. Kirk branded the country as a progressive small state, enshrining New Zealand’s opposition to racism and nuclear testing, while embracing a deep internationalism; a conception that is central to New Zealand’s national identity that has entrenched New Zealand as a global normative power.
Then David Lange exemplified normative priority with his principled opposition to nuclear weapons, which led to the dismantling of the ANZUS Defense Treaty and the creation of the Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty in the 1980s. It was evident also in 1997, when New Zealand Defense Force troops were sent to the island of Bougainville, and the U.N. sanctioned multilateral force to restore peace and security in East Timor. And a normative stance ruled the day yet again in the ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2018.
The Clark and Key governments followed this normative multilateral approach through New Zealand’s opposition to the Iraq War (calling for a negotiated settlement through the U.N.) while supporting the Afghan intervention, its continued assistance to the Solomon Islands, and its condemnation of the 2006 Fijian coup.
Of course, this normative approach has been accompanied by a pragmatic assessment of material interests, with an eye toward the domestic political environment with its unique links to the South Pacific. The country has sought to enhance the security and economic health of the South Pacific through aid, economic exchange, and an active diplomacy supporting liberal values. As a small trade dependent state, New Zealand has worked to entrench a rule-based trading regimes and lower trade barriers for its products. It was a major force behind the establishment of the current Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It was the first OECD country to sign a comprehensive trade agreement with China. It has worked hard to lower trade and investment barriers with China as an important aspect of deepening its economic relations with Asia generally.
Despite its departure from ANZUS (it was kicked out of the alliance over a question of values) and an embrace of a more independent foreign policy in the 1980s, New Zealand has continued intelligence sharing and military relationships with Australia and the United States. Indeed, the leaders such as David Lange and Helen Clark, who were central to the development of the New Zealand anti-nuclear policy and the split with ANZUS, reinforced New Zealand’s intelligence-gathering capability. Shortly after the dissolution of ANZUS, Lange authorized the construction of a signals interception base at Waihopai in the South Island, (although he later claimed that he did not know it was used for international operations) and as Prime Minister Helen Clark was highly critical of anti-war protesters who destroyed property on the base.
This blend of the pragmatic and the normative as part of an independent foreign policy are baked into New Zealand political discourse. More importantly, it is bound up in the nation’s identity. However, the tendency to privilege economic interests can seriously compromise both independence and the liberal values that underpin that policy. Given the massive economic Chinese footprint in the country it has been would be easy for New Zealand policymakers to view the recent changes in the Pacific through the prism of economic interest and equidistance.
Yet, as the joint statement makes clear, the values aspect in New Zealand’s diplomacy continues to resonate with policymakers and remains a priority in its Pacific diplomacy. This values-based approach does not take “independence” and equidistance as objectives in themselves. Rather, but they are a means to best effectuate New Zealand liberal values, reinforce a rule-based international order that benefits large states as well as small states, as well as insulate its Pacific neighborhood from great power conflict.
This means that New Zealand will pursue policies that are most in accord with its values its position as a global norm leader. In the 1980s and ’90s when American, Australian, and French military policies threatened these underlying values, it necessitated the anti-nuclear responses that underpinned the dissolution of ANZUS and a re-ordering of France-New Zealand relations. Similarly, where recent Chinese efforts are understood to be an effort to provide an alternative to the current rule-based rule of law normative framework and increase great power competition in the Pacific region, an action such as the Joint Statement, which emphasizes values (and shared values) is an appropriate response consistent with long-standing New Zealand foreign policy.