Is New Zealand about to join a “NATO-Plus”?
That seems to be the effective endgame, if reports ahead of New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ attendance at the NATO summit in Lithuania are anything to go by.
Formally, the expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the Indo-Pacific is unlikely to use such snappy shorthand. Instead of NATO-Plus, the more arcane “IP4” nomenclature looks set to be used by the summit’s joint statement issued in Vilnius. IP4 is a reference to the four NATO-friendly countries in the Indo-Pacific (IP): Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.
For a second year in a row, the leaders of all four countries have been invited to attend the annual gathering of the West’s premier political and military alliance.
As the war in Ukraine reaches the 500-day mark – with seemingly no end in sight – the meeting in Vilnius will be another chance for NATO and NATO-friendly leaders to reiterate their support for Ukraine. Indeed, the exact nature of Ukraine’s future with NATO will be one topic of discussion at the summit.
Another issue is likely to be a major overhaul of NATO’s war plans. NATO’s military commander – U.S. General Christopher Cavoli – has reportedly drafted a 4,000-page strategy for NATO’s operations throughout Europe.
New Zealand’s own role in the blueprint, if it has one, is unknown. It is likely to stay this way; the details will remain strictly classified.
With Ukraine very much the focus, could Hipkins make a flying visit to Kyiv during his week in Europe? New Zealand stands out among Western backers of Ukraine for not having sent a leader to visit the country. Among the IP4, the prime ministers of Australia and Japan have both made the trip.
Officially, Hipkins says a mission to Kyiv is “unlikely.” But he hasn’t ruled it out either.
So far, the New Zealand prime minister has only announced three main engagements for his travel – providing plenty of time, at least in theory, for a quick side-trip to Ukraine. And Ukraine’s ambassador to New Zealand, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, disclosed last month that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had recently issued a formal invitation to Hipkins to visit Ukraine “the day before or the day after the summit” in Lithuania.
Hipkins announced a modest increase in New Zealand’s assistance to Kyiv in May, when he visited New Zealand troops helping to train their Ukrainian counterparts in the United Kingdom.
A trip to Ukraine would provide Hipkins with an on-the-ground experience that his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, never had. It could also strengthen his case with voters when making the case to lift New Zealand’s military spending.
New Zealand spent just under 1.4 percent of its GDP on the military in 2021, according to figures from the World Bank. This falls well short of NATO’s traditional 2 percent target. Moreover, reports suggest that NATO leaders may even make a commitment in Vilnius to make the 2 percent target more of a baseline amount, rather than a ceiling.
Hipkins’ Labor Government has already boosted military spending by 747 million New Zealand dollars. The increase, announced in May, is mainly earmarked for lifting defense personnel salaries – a decision that Labor can more easily sell as a social policy.
Controversial decisions still need to be made on more expensive hardware purchases, as well as on particularly sensitive issues such as whether New Zealand will join “Pillar 2” of the AUKUS arrangement that currently involves Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The outcome of New Zealand’s Defense Policy Review – which has been fast-tracked by Hipkins’ defense minister, Andrew Little – is expected to be released by the end of July.
Images of Hipkins at the top table in Vilnius – and potentially with Zelenskyy in Kyiv – may prove to be useful domestically for the New Zealand Labor leader, who faces an election in under 100 days. But they could also be a double-edged sword for a prime minister who has promised to focus on “bread and butter” issues and whose country is currently in recession.
The big calls on New Zealand’s military future – and just how many guns will be added to the bread and butter – will almost certainly be made after the election on October 14.
China will also be watching Hipkins closely while he is in Europe.
Relations between China and the West have deteriorated overall since the last NATO leaders’ summit was held in Spain in 2022. Ardern attended that summit on behalf of New Zealand. Her participation helped to provide Indo-Pacific backing for the launch of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which put China firmly in the bloc’s sights for the first time.
One year on, Wellington’s relationship with Beijing is currently on the way up. Hipkins recently completed a successful four-day trip to China that included meetings with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.
If the Madrid summit was about testing the waters for NATO’s eastward turn, this year’s edition in Vilnius will be about formalizing deeper NATO partnerships with the Indo-Pacific.
According to New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, Wellington will be signing up to an “Individually Tailored Partnership Program” (ITPP) with NATO. Mahuta said the pact will cover “areas of common interest” that include “the international rules based order, climate change, and cybersecurity.”
The specific, bilateral nature of the agreements appears to be an attempt to stave off inevitable criticism from China that a new military bloc is being formed to contain it. Mahuta told Reuters that neither New Zealand nor NATO considers the ITPPs to be a new grouping.
However, how Beijing will interpret such semantics remains to be seen.
The four Indo-Pacific countries are clearly acting in concert – and Japanese media reports indicate their leaders will hold a separate summit on the sidelines of the NATO gathering, as they did in Madrid in 2022.
In China, Hipkins told New Zealand media that his forthcoming participation at the NATO summit was not discussed during his face-to-face meeting with Xi.
It didn’t have to be.
The red-carpet receptions for Hipkins and his accompanying delegation, which featured many of New Zealand’s top exporters, served as a constant reminder of China’s importance.
A stop in Brussels on the way to Vilnius will provide Hipkins with an opportunity to show how progress is being made in diversifying New Zealand’s trading partners in an attempt to reduce its reliance upon the Chinese market. The visit will see the formal signing of New Zealand’s free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union.
Hipkins will be keen to talk up the merits of the deal. The FTA is certainly an achievement and is particularly popular with New Zealand fruit exporters such as kiwifruit giant Zespri. In total, the deal will eventually boost New Zealand’s exports to the EU by up to NZ$1.8 billion each year, according to official estimates.
But the FTA was a disappointment for New Zealand’s main agricultural producers, which make up the lion’s share of the country’s exports, around a third of New Zealand’s total exports by value. Questions remain over whether New Zealand jumped too soon to accept a deal – rather than continuing to negotiate for something more commercially meaningful.
Under the arrangements, New Zealand will in seven years’ time be allowed to sell just over 11,000 tonnes of beef to the EU, which has a population of 450 million people. This is only about the same amount of beef that New Zealand currently sells every year to Canada – population 38 million – and pales in comparison with the 200,000-plus tonnes it sells to China annually.
A similarly restrictive quota of 15,000 tonnes will apply to New Zealand’s exports of milk powder into the EU. Even then, in-quota tariffs will continue to apply in both cases.
Chris Hipkins is heading to Europe. There will be some high-profile meetings, and there could be some powerful images. But as always, the devil is very much in the details.
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.