US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken holds the wero aloft during the Powhiri to welcome him to Parliament yesterday

For the past four and half weeks, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have undertaken one of the most intensive periods of meetings with foreign leaders that we have seen in recent years.

The Prime Minister has met all of China’s leadership and then attended a NATO summit and this week met with the Australian Prime Minister and US Secretary of State.

The Foreign Minister meanwhile held 11 bilateral meetings with counterparts at the recent “ASEAN plus” Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Jakarta.

It has been a period that has put New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy to the test.

It was, therefore, perhaps fitting that the outreach ended yesterday with a brief visit from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

But the only conclusion that can be reached is that New Zealand’s foreign policy remains ambiguous.

Whatever an “independent” foreign policy might be has not really been spelt out.

That was clear yesterday with three statements during the Blinken visit.

Blinken met briefly with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who released a statement after the meeting.

“The US is a close friend and partner to New Zealand, and we value any opportunity to share our perspectives on the many issues facing our region and the world,” said Hipkins.

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That language is revealing because the phrase “friend and partner” is exactly what Hipkins refused to describe China as after his meeting with President Xi in Beijing a month ago, even though Xi had used the words to describe China’s relationship with New Zealand.

Blinken also had a “working dinner” with Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Wednesday night and a formal meeting with her yesterday morning.

“With regard to China, I think what is most striking to me, both here in New Zealand, in the region more broadly as well as in Europe, and in Northeast Asia, is an extraordinary convergence of approaches to dealing with the incredibly complex and consequential relationship that we all have with China,” he said at a joint press conference with her yesterday in the Beehive.

“And I think if you look at what or listen to what the (New Zealand) Prime Minister said, what the foreign minister said, as well as what we’ve said, you’ll see that that convergence, that commonality of approach from the perspective of the United States that we believe it’s our obligation to responsibly manage this relationship.”

On Wednesday in Tonga, however, Secretary Blinken had described China’s activities in the Pacific as “increasingly problematic”.

He said they included at the same time  the assertion of unlawful maritime claims, “something that I’ve raised extensively when I was in China;  the militarisation of disputed features, for example, in the South China Seas, some predatory economic activities, and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption.”

In Wellington, Blinken was talking about cooperating with China.

“We think those (high-level contacts)  are important for all of us to take part in,” he said.

“It’s the best way, first of all, to try to manage our very real differences, to see if we can’t work through some of them, but also to find out if there are areas of cooperation where in our mutual interest and the interests of many others, it makes sense that we find ways to work together.” 

POLITIK US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken with Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta at a photo oppurtunity in Parliament yesterday

But Mahuta had a very different definition of the real threat to the Pacific.

“In relation to the China-US question and with regards to the Pacific region, It would be fair to say that our Pacific partners themselves have articulated that the greatest security threat in our region is climate change,” she said.

And Mahuta seemed to have a subtly different approach to whether or not New Zealand should join the so-called Pillar Two of the AUKUS submarine project.

A study by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has said that Pillar Two may end up being the most important part of the AUKUS agreement, given that the first submarine constructed under the agreement is not expected until 2056.

“According to the bureaucratic language of the AUKUS announcement, the purpose of Pillar Two is to enhance our joint capabilities and interoperability,” the report said.

“Yet the scope of the original agreement was massive, covering cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.

“A few months later, four more areas were added to these advanced capabilities: hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, EW, innovation, and information sharing.

“Individually, each area of Pillar Two has game-winning potential in the strategic competition with China.

“Taken together, they could be game-changing, securing the future military and economic advantage of the AUKUS nations and recasting the nature of this competition for global influence.”

The right-wing foreign affairs commentator for “The Australian”, Greg Sheridan, yesterday scoffed at the idea of New Zealand becoming part of Pillar Two.

“New Zealand joining AUKUS in any meaningful way is a kind of fantasy idea,” he wrote.

POLITIK US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall at Parliament yesterday

But Hipkins has suggested New Zealand might be interested.

“We are open to conversations with AUKUS  partners around what New Zealand’s involvement in some of those some of those things might look like,” he said on Wednesday at his joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“It’s early days yet, so there are no formal kind of proposals on the table.”

Blinken yesterday sounded supportive of the idea.

“On the second pillar, the door is very much open for New Zealand and other partners to engage as they see appropriate going forward,” he said.

“New Zealand is a deeply trusted partner, obviously a Five Eyes member.

“We’ve long worked together on the most important national security issues, and so as we further develop AUKUS, as I said, the door is open to engagement.”

Mahuta was more cautious.

“I’ve been quite clear in terms of New Zealand’s position on the AUKUS arrangements right from the beginning that New Zealand is not prepared to compromise or change our nuclear-free position,” SHE SAID.

“It’s in the first instance, and it’s acknowledged and regarded by AUKUS members, and they have certainly heard what we’ve said in relation to our concerns around compliance of those arrangements with the Treaty of Rarotonga, and that is a widely held view across the region.

“When I consider the aspects of Pillar TYwo, that was relayed to the Secretary (of Foreign Affairs and Trade) at an officials level, we’re exploring what the full extent of political opportunities could look like.

“And then once that’s well understood and articulated by officials and agreed to, that will come back to Cabinet.”

Her reference to Cabinet is important because that indicates that she may believe there are voices within the Cabinet (possibly her own), which may not favour New Zealand becoming part of Pillar Two.

Defence Minister Andrew Little in March had to qualify comments he had made, saying he had indicated to the AUKUS that New Zealand would be willing to explore becoming part of Pillar Two.

In a subsequent interview, he emphasised that any decision would be a Cabinet decision.

There is a view among many MPs in Parliament that New Zealand should be reluctant to enter into any security arrangements with the United States unless the US is willing to do a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with New Zealand or enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) plurilateral trade agreement.

China has an FTA with New Zealand and has applied to join the CPTPP.

Blinken had little to say when asked what it would take for the US to join the CPTPP.

“With regard to trade, we have, as I think you heard the foreign minister say, a vigorous and strong trade and investment relationship between our countries,” he said.

“And I think that’s only going to grow.

Our focus right now is on building out the Indo-Pacific economic framework.”

But the framework does not address New Zealand’s principle concerns with the Us which are its discriminatory tariffs on dairy and other agricultural products and, recently, its obstructionist behaviour at the World Trade Organisation.

So, though the relationship with the US is clearly warm, it is ultimately unclear how close the security relationship is.

Whoever is Prime Minister in November will have an opportunity at APEC in San Francisco to define the relationship with the US a little more sharply.

But they will have to do so with President Xi likely to be in attendance also.

That could be a major test of the “independent” foreign policy.