Antony Blinken is heading down under.
The U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to New Zealand and Australia this week comes as the two countries jointly host the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has highlighted the potential for “good old-fashioned sports diplomacy” – and Blinken is scheduled to attend the United States vs. Netherlands match in Wellington on Thursday afternoon.
But the travel is more than just a chance to take in a game.
Blinken’s visit just happens to coincide with a trip to Wellington by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. The Australian prime minister is coming for talks with his New Zealand counterpart, Chris Hipkins.
It seems inevitable that New Zealand’s potential role in the AUKUS defense pact will be up for discussion in closed-door meetings involving Albanese, Blinken, Hipkins and Mahuta.
Blinken will arrive in New Zealand after a stopover in Tonga to dedicate a new U.S. embassy in Nuku’alofa.
The new U.S. embassy in Tonga fulfills a pledge made by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in a virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum in July last year. The swift opening of the new diplomatic mission – which commenced operations in May – is one way to show that Washington means business when it comes to the Pacific. An in-person visit to Tonga – population 100,000 – by America’s top diplomat is another.
Further south, calls on New Zealand by top-ranking U.S. officials have traditionally also been rare: the last visit by a U.S. secretary of state came when Rex Tillerson spent eight hours in Wellington in 2017.
But New Zealand has seen a parade of senior U.S. officials arriving over the past year, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink.
Soon after Campbell’s visit in March, New Zealand Defense Minister Andrew Little indicated New Zealand was willing to explore joining the “second pillar” of AUKUS – comments that were later somewhat walked back by Hipkins.
In recent years, New Zealand has already made remarkable foreign policy shifts – and it is worth remembering just how far Wellington has come.
After all, when Tillerson visited six years ago, New Zealand was still getting used to rebuilding ties with the United States, after the bilateral relationship had languished for several decades. The U.S. suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty in 1986, in response to the introduction of a nuclear-free policy by New Zealand’s Fourth Labour Government. Normalization began with the “Wellington Declaration” – signed when Hillary Clinton visited New Zealand in 2010 – and the companion military-focused “Washington Declaration” in 2012.
The U.S. began allowing New Zealand into its military drills even later: New Zealand was invited to participate in the joint U.S.-Australia Talisman Sabre exercise for the first time in 2015.
New Zealand has been a consistent participant since then, including in the 2023 edition of Talisman Sabre that is currently underway in northern Australia.
This year’s version is the biggest yet, involving 13 countries and some 30,000 troops.
Countries involved for the first time include Germany and India (the latter as an observer), while militaries from all three of the smaller Pacific Island nations that have standing armies are also on board: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga.
While all militaries need to train, this year’s Talisman Sabre is designed more than ever to project U.S.-led unity and strength vis-à-vis China.
In this respect, New Zealand presents something of a dilemma. Wellington’s foreign policy has undoubtedly become more hardline over the past year. By and large, New Zealand has been listening and responding to its more hawkish Western partners.
Chris Hipkins’ Labour Government has signed up to new U.S.-led groupings and joint statements, expanded New Zealand’s ties with NATO and committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on its military.
But as Hipkins’ recent trip to China showed, New Zealand is still China’s best friend in the West – and in substance and tone, the New Zealand prime minister is still striking a markedly softer tone than his more hawkish friends.
For the most part, Hipkins is content to describe Wellington’s relationship with Beijing as “complex” and has largely settled on the relatively mild adjective of “assertive” to describe China’s ambitions.
The “assertive” descriptor popped up in Hipkins’ most-detailed foreign policy address to date, made to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) shortly before the prime minister headed to Europe for the NATO summit in mid-July.
The choice has not come out of thin air: the strongest words on Beijing in the recent Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) are a reference to “the Chinese Government’s more assertive foreign policy.”
The MFAT blueprint also frequently deploys the “complex” wording favored by Hipkins.
This results in some rather tortured and deliberately oblique phrasings in reference to risks for New Zealand, such as “increasing regional complexities arising from engagement by development partners from outside the region.”
By contrast, the NATO leaders’ communique issued in Lithuania is crystal clear in its calling out of Beijing: “The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”
To be fair, Blinken himself has attempted to take a more constructive tone of late in a bid to build bridges with Beijing, following the recent visits by the Secretary of State and other top U.S. officials to China.
But this should still be seen in context: While Blinken was conciliatory when he pledged in June to “manage” U.S. rivalry with China “so that the relationship does not veer into conflict,” he also recently delivered remarks in Indonesia that decried “the use of force, coercion, or aggression” – talking points that were squarely aimed at Beijing.
Back in Wellington, New Zealand may now be reading the same book as its Western partners, but it is not yet quite on the same page. Nevertheless, there is still time for the U.S. to influence the trajectory of New Zealand’s foreign policy.
The most significant components of New Zealand’s foreign policy realignment are yet to come. Hipkins recently signaled the release of a new National Security Strategy, while the results from an expedited “Defense Policy Review” process are expected soon.
But with New Zealand’s election taking place on October 14, the reports – and Blinken’s visit – are likely to inform decisions that will be taken by the country’s next government.
Blinken is entering New Zealand’s field of play.
The geopolitical stakes are high.
And the game is not over yet.
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.