Times are changing in New Zealand foreign policy.
That seems to be the message from New Zealand’s new triumvirate of ministers with responsibility for foreign affairs and defense – Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta (a holdover from the previous government), and Defense Minister Andrew Little.
Jacinda Ardern’s departure as prime minister was always going to provide an opportunity to adjust New Zealand’s positioning. In particular, Hipkins’ decision to appoint Andrew Little as defense minister – replacing Peeni Henare – seems to have been a strategic move.
From the top, Hipkins has struck a more ideological tone in his most substantive comments on foreign policy to date, promising in a recent interview that New Zealand would maintain “steadfast support for Ukraine and its people as they continue to defend their homeland, and in doing so, the principles that we hold dear.”
The comments appeared notably more forceful than what amounted to the final word on Ukraine made by Ardern while she was prime minister, made in mid-December when the New Zealand Parliament hosted a virtual address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In her response to Zelenskyy at the time, Ardern seemed largely content to reiterate her government’s current level of assistance to Ukraine. She told the Ukrainian president, “I want to acknowledge your further calls for support,” but pledged only a relatively small amount of additional humanitarian aid to the Red Cross.
Hipkins’ shift in tone raises the possibility that more support from New Zealand could be in the works – perhaps including more money for “lethal aid” weaponry to help Ukraine in any spring counteroffensive, or at least equipment that could be usefully deployed on the battlefield.
It has now been 11 months since New Zealand made its first and so far only lethal aid contribution to the war so far, which came in the form of NZ$7.5million transfer to the United Kingdom to purchase weapons on New Zealand’s behalf.
Since the cash-for-weapons announcement last April, New Zealand’s assistance has focused on sanctions, money for non-lethal and humanitarian aid, and on sending a small number of New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) personnel to Europe to train Ukrainian soldiers.
To that end, Little’s recent comments that the government is at least giving “further consideration” to Ukrainian requests for New Zealand to send it light armored vehicles (LAVs) are intriguing.
New Zealand reportedly has 74 working LAVs, but Peeni Henare, Little’s predecessor as defense minister, rejected a request by Ukraine to send them last August.
Henare’s rejection was made ostensibly on technical grounds, motivated by factors such as a lack of spare parts and troops to provide training. This rationale has always seemed unconvincing and more like an excuse to maintain a firewall on sending more material support to Kyiv.
In the United States, the Biden administration argued for some time that its own Abrams tanks needed too much fuel and heavy maintenance to be useful to Kyiv – only to eventually give in and send the hardware that Ukraine had been asking for in a deal announced in January.
Ukraine’s non-resident ambassador to New Zealand, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, says Canada could help to fix the LAVs – a suggestion that Little appears to at least be contemplating, based on his comment that “we would want to work with partners in terms of any support that we can provide.”
This is still short of a firm commitment, however. Hipkins was non-committal and admitted “I haven’t got the latest information” when asked about the LAVs at his post-cabinet press conference on Monday.
Still, there is far more to the foreign policy shifts than just a sharper tone (and potentially an upgrade in substance) when it comes to Ukraine. The defense portfolio provides further clues.
New Zealand’s military has essentially been in a holding pattern since Labor’s outright victory in the 2020 election. A formal Defense Policy Review process was announced last July, with a rather generous final reporting date set for mid-2024.
But Little has suggested in media interviews that work on the review needs to “accelerate” amid a “materially different” geopolitical environment. The new defense minister noted increased military spending and activity by Japan, France, the U.K., and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, adding that “there’s an expectation that we will demonstrate some leadership.”
It seems likely that this will involve New Zealand significantly boosting its defense spending and cooperating more closely with the countries Little mentioned. While he was reluctant to comment on specifics, pointing to the review, Little suggested a “different range of maritime capability” could be needed so that New Zealand could satisfy defense needs both closer to home and “further abroad.”
Major spending decisions may be just months away.
Under the original terms of reference for the Defense Policy Review, an initial draft of a new defense policy and strategy was to be submitted by October 2022, while a “future force design principles statement” was expected by this April. Those deadlines were subsequently pushed back even further: The strategy document is now reportedly due this month and the future force statement in June.
In between the two, on May 17, will be the government’s first budget since Chris Hipkins took over as prime minister.
Given Little’s comments on the need to expedite the review process – and the fact that the election is scheduled to be held just five months after the budget, on October 17 – it seems plausible that funding decisions will now be based on just the initial strategy document.
In fact, in all likelihood, the decisions have already been made, with the review process simply serving as cover.
New Zealand’s military spending drifted slightly downwards to 1.4 percent of GDP in 2021, according to figures from the World Bank. But amid a new wave of militarization around the world, there seems little doubt that New Zealand’s spending will soon see a sharp rise.
China’s announcement at the weekend that it will increase its defense spending by an “appropriate” amount will only provide further justification for a boost.
Countries around the Indo-Pacific are lifting military spending: Australia’s defense minister recently promised the country would soon take its “biggest step forward,” while India has announced a spending increase of 13 percent.
A major uptick in the defense budget might seem at odds with Hipkins’ pledge to focus on “bread and butter” domestic issues focused on the cost of living. But the military spend is likely to be sold at least in part as a social and climate change policy response. In interviews, Little repeatedly spoke of “attrition” in the ranks since the outbreak of COVID-19. He also referred to the difficulties New Zealand’s military would face in responding to a “significant disaster recovery exercise” in the Pacific, pointing to the defense force’s role in New Zealand in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle.
This brings us to the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, who visited Japan and Singapore last week.
While “strengthening economic partnerships” was the stated aim of Mahuta’s trip, in reality the mission rather predictably ended up being far more about hard security. As if to underline this, Mahuta met in Singapore not with her foreign minister counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, but with Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen.
And earlier, during Mahuta’s visit to Tokyo, New Zealand signed on to a rather hawkish joint statement with Japan on cooperation in the Pacific that agreed the region should remain “inclusive, stable and prosperous, and free from foreign interference and coercion” – phrasing clearly aimed at China. But the threats posed by climate change were also repeatedly mentioned in the document as rationale for a “family first approach to peace and security” in the Pacific.
The most specific outcome from Mahuta’s trip to Tokyo was an undertaking by New Zealand and Japan to speed up discussions on an intelligence-sharing agreement that was signaled during Ardern’s own visit to Japan last year.
Japan recently announced plans to double its defense budget to reach the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2027 – a decision that will over $300 billion in spending in the next five years and will make Japan the third-biggest military spender in the world.
Interestingly, the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s account of Mahuta’s meeting with her Japanese counterpart, Hayashi Yoshimasa, described Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea as a group of “like-minded countries.”
This suggests that the “AP4” format from last year’s NATO summit in Spain may endure and could yet turn into something of a mini-alliance. Leaders from all four Asia-Pacific countries (dubbed the AP4) were invited guests at the 2022 NATO gathering in Madrid and held a separate meeting on the event’s sidelines.
While there are many geopolitical uncertainties, one thing is clear: Across the Indo-Pacific, countries are rearming. And New Zealand looks set to join the pack.
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.