AUKUS or Not, New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Is Being Remade

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AUKUS or Not, New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Is Being Remade

The AUKUS debate is incredibly important. But a reshaping of New Zealand’s foreign policy is already happening in other ways.

AUKUS or Not, New Zealand’s Foreign Policy Is Being Remade
Credit: Depositphotos

This could be a watershed week for New Zealand’s international relations. Winston Peters, the foreign minister, is heading to Washington, D.C., for a full week of meetings.

The surprisingly lengthy trip just happens to coincide with a major trilateral summit of leaders from the United States, Japan, and the Philippines.

And a media report over the weekend suggested a wider AUKUS “Pillar II” announcement is imminent. The original AUKUS partners are Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, wrote late last week that Japan was “about to become the first additional Pillar II partner.”

In recent weeks, policymakers have been keen to downplay New Zealand’s immediate AUKUS membership prospects. Judith Collins, New Zealand’s defense minister, said there was “no guarantee” that New Zealand would join the arrangement, while U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins was similarly non-committal during a visit to Wellington in March.

That said, diplomatic smoke signals suggest something is afoot: on top of Jenkins’ visit, Collins recently had a phone call with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke to officials at New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The AUKUS debate is incredibly important. But it is worth keeping it in perspective. A reshaping of New Zealand’s foreign policy is also coming, slowly but surely, in other ways.

On the first leg of his now five-country trip, Peters confirmed that New Zealand is finalizing an Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The ITPP plans were first revealed nearly a year ago by New Zealand’s then-foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta of the previous Labor government. But while Chris Hipkins, the prime minister at the time, attended the July 2023 NATO summit in Lithuania, the ITPP largely disappeared from view. This contrasted with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, which all sealed new partnerships with the West’s premier political and military alliance.

Based on Peters’ reference to the “coming months,” it now seems a near-certainty that New Zealand’s ITPP will be finalized in time for Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to attend this year’s NATO leaders’ meeting in Washington, D.C., in July.

The decision to use the ITPP agreement structure – as opposed to institutionalizing the “Asia-Pacific 4” (or AP4) nomenclature that is sometimes used to refer to the group informally – may have been at least partly motivated by New Zealand’s sensitivities over China.

NATO’s inclusion of China as a “systemic challenge” in its long-term Strategic Concept, released in 2022, was a major reason why the alliance sought to revitalize its partnerships with countries situated well beyond the North Atlantic.

China’s response to New Zealand’s finalized ITPP will be intriguing. Last year, Wang Xiaolong, China’s ambassador in Wellington, issued a lengthy statement after Hipkins attended NATO’s gathering in Vilnius. Wang closed by warning New Zealand to “refrain from opening the door to the devil.”

In addition to AUKUS and NATO, it is worth recalling New Zealand’s involvement in other U.S.-led groupings that have recently either emerged or reemerged. These include the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) groupings – but also the Five Eyes and the ANZUS Treaty.

New Zealand was a founding member of both the IPEF and PBP groupings that were launched in the first half of 2022. The arrangements came in the febrile aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent revelations of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands. IPEF includes 14 countries from around the Indo-Pacific, but notably excludes China. Meanwhile, the PBP includes Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States as members, with Canada, Germany, and South Korea involved as partners.

Both arrangements are modest on the surface, but hold significant potential. The IPEF Supply Chain Agreement that came into force in February 2024, for example, is clearly a starting point for reducing overall economic dependence on China – especially in strategic areas. The agreement suggests a particular focus on “sectors and goods critical to national security, public health and safety.” The details are still to be worked out by an IPEF Supply Chain Council.

Like IPEF, the PBP is another practical way for the West to counter China’s influence. The PBP is particularly useful for expressing commitment to previously-neglected Pacific countries. A joint statement issued after a PBP foreign minister meeting in September 2023 mainly focused on providing support to Pacific countries on issues such as illegal fishing and climate change. However, it also emphasized cybersecurity and pledged support for a new Pacific Cyber Capacity and Coordination Conference.

Meanwhile, the Five Eyes grouping of the five English-speaking countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. continues to rise in prominence – both formally and informally. The arrangement is probably at its strongest when focusing on intelligence sharing, its original purpose, as seen in the recent spying allegations that were made against China.

But informally, the Five Eyes label also refers to increased cooperation amongst the five trusted Anglosphere members in other areas. This cooperation does not always involve the United States. Sometimes the smaller Five Eyes partners have worked together and put pressure on Washington and London. For example, the prime ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand issued joint statements calling for a ceasefire in Gaza in December 2023 and February 2024.

Finally, there is the question of ANZUS, an alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the United States established in 1951. This was effectively Australasia’s equivalent to NATO. In theory, it would be an ideal “minilateral,” a format currently favored by Washington (as seen in this week’s Japan-Philippines-U.S. tripartite summit). A recent joint statement from the Australian and New Zealand defense ministers referred to the ‘enduring nature of the ANZUS Treaty” – which caught the attention of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who asked why the treaty “suddenly pop[ped] up in NZ-Australia ministerial communique when the Closer Defence Relationship between the 2 countries is more usually cited as the current basis for the relationship?” 

There is just one problem: the United States officially suspended its obligations to New Zealand in 1986, after the Fourth Labor Government (in which Clark was a minister) adopted a nuclear-free policy. While a center-right National-led coalition is now in power in Wellington, the nuclear-free policy remains popular. Touching it would almost certainly be a non-starter for Luxon, a keen centrist.

Unless some form of workable compromise could be found, the only real solution left would be for the United States to accept New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy as the price of welcoming New Zealand back into the ANZUS fold. If ANZUS were fully restored, it would once again confer U.S. ally status on New Zealand. It would be the most radical foreign policy shift yet for Wellington – but also a clear win.

But like the other options – whether AUKUS, a NATO partnership agreement, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or Partners in the Blue Pacific – an improbable ANZUS revival would still suffer from a major flaw. The more hawkish Wellington becomes, the greater the risk of reprisals from Beijing.

China has had a free trade agreement with New Zealand since 2008 – and is happy to buy virtually anything New Zealand produces. The United States is not. It still buys 13 percent of New Zealand’s exports – but China takes 28 percent. 

None of the options would give New Zealand the elusive free trade agreement with the United States – or comprehensive market access elsewhere – that would offer New Zealand any kind of realistic trading alternative to China. 

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.