The first clues to New Zealand’s foreign policy after Jacinda Ardern stepped down are beginning to emerge.
Chris Hipkins, the new prime minister, decided to retain Nanaia Mahuta as his foreign minister – and both Hipkins and Mahuta took to the skies last week.
While Hipkins headed to Australia – the customary first destination for an incoming New Zealand prime minister – Mahuta flew to India on a surprise trip announced just a day prior to her departure.
In very different contexts, the pair managed to smooth over differences and pave the way for deeper partnerships, which may well involve greater military cooperation.
Mahuta is likely to play a bigger role in New Zealand’s foreign policy in the months to come, not least because Hipkins’ pledge to focus on “bread and butter” economic issues is likely to keep him at home more often, especially as the October 14 election date draws closer. The dynamic between Hipkins and Mahuta will be fascinating to watch.
Hipkins demoted Mahuta in his Cabinet rankings – from 8th to 16th – and reassigned her other ministerial portfolio of Local Government, under which Mahuta had been determined to roll out the controversial “Three Waters” infrastructure reforms.
In announcing his Cabinet reshuffle, Hipkins made clear that he expected Mahuta to be “out and about travelling more.” This was a reference to Mahuta’s relatively light travel schedule since becoming foreign minister in November 2020. Mahuta’s last major trip before India was to Papua New Guinea in early September 2022.
While the foreign minister paid tribute to outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on social media, she made no similar move to congratulate Chris Hipkins on his new role.
There was another curiosity as well. In Waitangi with Hipkins and her Labor Party colleagues for events to commemorate New Zealand’s national day on February 6, Mahuta suddenly canceled a scheduled address to foreign diplomats without explanation. She then announced a trip to India and left New Zealand on Waitangi Day itself.
The following day, February 7, Hipkins flew to Canberra for a more predictable, one-day trip to meet his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese.
The two leaders were at pains to project warmth and friendship – despite being at odds over whether they had previously met (Albanese recalled a past encounter in Wellington, but Hipkins had already told media that he had never met Albanese).
In the Australian capital, Hipkins was keen to stress continuity – “our foreign policy position hasn’t changed just because there’s a change of prime minister” – while Albanese sought to stress closeness by saying “we are family.”
An underlying tension had been neutralized in advance of Hipkins’ visit to Canberra, after the Australian government pledged to apply more discretion when deciding whether to deport “501s,” or New Zealand citizens who had served prison sentences of 12 months or more in Australia. The issue had been a source of tension in the bilateral relationship, with Ardern calling it “corrosive” to the relationship in 2019 and publicly telling Australia’s then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2020 “do not deport your people and your problems” – a reference to the fact that many deportees had grown up in Australia.
The recent shift by Albanese’s government is largely a case of style over substance. Australia has not changed Section 501 of its Migration Act and has made no specific commitments on the number of deportees. But it was a shift in tone and that was all that was needed to take the 501 issue off the agenda.
As geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific builds, Australia has bigger fish to fry.
Canberra would like to see Wellington move more closely into its orbit when it comes to countering Beijing.
When asked about the potential for New Zealand to become involved in the new AUKUS security pact, Hipkins deployed the usual red herring of pointing to New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy – which would seemingly rule out a partnership built on nuclear-powered submarines.
But the architects of AUKUS have long suggested the partnership could be expanded into other areas, and Albanese reinforced this notion in his press conference with Hipkins. Albanese said AUKUS was “about a whole range of issues, including the interoperability of our forces and also co-operation on technology and other issues.” With the 501 issue dealt with, and an easier pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders living in Australia to be announced by April, Australia might be tempted to take advantage of the goodwill generated – and the fresh leadership in Wellington – to push for New Zealand’s involvement in a more peripheral component of AUKUS.
High-ranking officials, such as Ardern’s defense minister and New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Australia, have previously signaled an interest in becoming involved in non-nuclear submarine components of AUKUS.
Over 10,000 kilometers away from Canberra, in New Delhi, New Zealand’s foreign minister faced a challenge that was both different and similar to the one faced by Hipkins.
Mahuta’s visit to India was a reciprocal call after an unusually long, five-day visit to New Zealand in October by India’s external affairs minister, Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. During his visit, Jaishankar had publicly signaled his displeasure with New Zealand over its treatment of Indian visa holders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a sense, there were parallels with New Zealand’s resentment over the “501” deportees from Australia. It had nothing to do with the bigger geopolitical picture, but there was a sense of grievance.
New Zealand heard Jaishankar’s criticism and responded by announcing 1,800 new “post-study” work visas in December. While this was not a full solution, the news was welcomed by Indian nationals who had returned home during the pandemic and subsequently found themselves locked out of New Zealand.
With the issue now at least partially dealt with, there was no repeat of the public rebuke issued by Jaishankar on his visit to Auckland and Wellington in 2022. Instead, the Indian External Affairs Ministry’s account of Jaishankar’s meeting with Mahuta noted discussions of bilateral cooperation on “economic, political, defense, education, and science & technology” issues.
The mention of defense is arguably the most significant – and potentially a sign of things to come.
In an interview with India’s Hindustan Times, Mahuta described India as a “counterbalance to the superpower contest” and pointed to “many benefits beyond trade,” while she told the ABP Live outlet, “We need to figure out who we can trust, who we can rely on in this time of need and India is such a significant contributor to ensuring greater peace and stability in the region.”
Military ties have played a key role in Australia’s deepening of its own bilateral relationship with India. Australia signed defense cooperation agreements with India in 2006, 2009, and 2014, which paved the way for the wider comprehensive strategic partnership signed in 2020.
Since 2015, Australia has conducted regular bilateral naval exercises with India called AUSINDEX. It followed this up last year with the first joint land-based activity, Austra-Hind, and by involving India in the multilateral Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercises.
In parallel, Australia has stepped up its commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) grouping that also includes India, Japan, and the United States.
The increased military engagement probably helped to facilitate the signing of Australia’s limited free trade agreement with India, which came into force in December 2022. New Zealand is envious of Australia’s trade deal with India, which according to some estimates is now the world’s most populous country.
Around the world, trade and security are only likely to become more interlinked as geopolitical tensions build. Australia and India would probably both like to expand their military ties with New Zealand.
However, it needs to be remembered that Australia and India are forging stronger bilateral relations in large part because of their common desire to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. And Hipkins last week described Beijing as “an incredibly important partner for New Zealand – a very important trading partner and a partner in other areas as well.”
With a third of New Zealand’s exports going to China every year, Hipkins will have his country’s beef and butter issues on his mind.
New Zealand may have a new prime minister, but the challenges remain much the same.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand’s democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement in politics and society.