Simon Bridges on his controversial trip to China last September

The very phrase, “Simon Bridges, diplomat”, would seem one of the more unlikely to appear this election year.

Bridges lost National’s leadership in May, in part, because many in his caucus thought his incessant opposition to anything the Government did was counter-productive during a crisis which had seen the country rally together.

In the tensions that followed, first the transition to Todd Muller, and then Judith Collins, Bridges surprised many with his request to become foreign policy spokesperson.

But Collins managed to prise the portfolio away from Gerry Brownlee and give it to Bridges after she became the National  leader last month.

His participation in a recent Institute of International Affairs debate on foreign policy was his first formal appearance as the Opposition spokesperson, and it drew attention to him inside Wellington’s diplomatic and international relations community because of what appeared to be a thoughtful and informed approach to his sportspersonship – not something that could be said about every or even many of National’s spokespeople.

A conversation with Bridges on foreign policy includes references to the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, Foreign Affairs magazine and a surprising degree of consensual support for the Government’s foreign policy direction.

At the same time, he hasn’t entirely shaken off the habits of leadership and obviously feels free to include observations on trade and defence policy in his briefing.

But what’s important about where Bridges is that while he disagrees with his old sparring partner, Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ style and rhetoric he more or less agrees with the subtle changes that Peters has brought to foreign policy in his time as foreign minister.

At its heart is an understanding that the world has changed.

Bridges believes that the United States is less strategic than it has been in the past, and China is more assertive.

Consequently the tensions between the superpowers are as bad as ever, and I think they are moving downwards,” he told POLITIK.

“It’s a more contested and dangerous world than it has been in decades.

“We see that manifest itself with economic and technological battles; whether it’s tik tok or placing controls on chips and we see it politically and militarily with issues like the South China Sea.

Bridges believes that this means that New Zealand needs to work proactively to defend its interests and values.

Our interests are obvious; trade,  a rules-based order seeking to ensure that the world does not become a more polarised, less global — some have been saying Hobbsian with each nation for itself.

“And then in terms of our values, they’re pretty straightforward; I don’t think there is any difference between the major parties in Parliament.

“I think we are probably seeing emerge something of a consensus on these things, the values on health, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is much more circumspect is defining his view of where New Zealand foreign policy is at but read between his lines, and it would seem he is in the same space as Bridges.

“Since the new government came to power in 2017 we have published papers setting out our thinking and strategy,” he told POLITIK.

“In particular, we made the distinction that we were going into this new phase of foreign affairs with our eyes wide open.”

Peters argues that the Key/English government had a degree of naivety in their dealings with foreign powers. (for which, presumably, read China).

“But we’ve made it very clear that we want to have good relations with every country but that we do have our own independent foreign policy and that we will not be allowing any external force to compromise that,” he said.

Bridges agrees that the relationship has changed from the Clark and Key years when it was “Simple”.

“But now the more assertive approach from China means we still highly value the relationship built on trade; on people to people and cultural ties, but we are going to need to condemn things when we think they are wrong in terms of our interests,” he said.

He quotes a recent paper written by Australian Labor Party Senator and Opposition spokesperson on Foreign affairs, Penny Wong, talking about the need for Australia to develop deeper ties with other middle powers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific and ASEAN regions.

He is interested in the way the “Quad” group of countries — the US, Australia, Japan and India — are developing.

Peters has participated in some “Quad Plus” meetings which also included South Korea, and Vietnam during the Covid lockdowns and found them useful in terms of how to manage the virus.

“In all my conversations of late, with foreign ministers, our conversations have seriously focussed on Covid-19,” he said.

“I think that we’ve got a serious interest in being involved,” he says.

“And I think in the being in at the beginning of this sort of idea means we’ve got a better chance to shape them in a way that we might like.

“The reality is, the Indo-Pacific is a concept that we’ve already signed up to and are pushing in our general thinking as an idea.”

“We’ve been all hit with Covid-19 and since March a whole lot of things that we were formally doing, whilst we’ve not t given up the conversation or the discussion between foreign affairs and ministries, between ministers our conversations seem to have been of late seriously focused on Covid-19 issues.”

Bridges is interested, too, in an expanded Quad.

“When you think about those countries in the Quad; India, Japan, countries we’ve already got great relationships with, they could and should be even closer,” he said.

But there are two other countries apart from India and Japan in the Quad; the United States and Australia and here things are more challenging.

Both are also members of Five Eyes which New Zealand is a member of, and that grouping is currently seen by China as potentially hostile.

Australia has been at the forefront of that hostility maintaining its support for the United States in a way former Australian Prime Minister once described as meaning that Australia was the United States “deputy sheriff” in the East Asia region.

Australia has for a long time now, had a much more robust relationship with China,” said Bridges.

“As I see it. New Zealand is moving closer to their China position of being more forthright.

But we are never going to be Australia.

“We do value our independent, foreign policy.

“We’re not going to be America’s sheriff.

“However, I would love to draw even closer to work with them, and I do actually agree with Winston Peters that a comprehensive free trade agreement is possible.

“But what has been required here over the last three years has been the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister pushing at it hard,” he said.

That is about as political as Bridges gets though he does criticise Peters for his use, at times, of flamboyant language with respect to China.

Bridges, it seems, would be much more diplomatic.

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