Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern laid it on the line yesterday and reminded the United States and Australia that New Zealand has an independent foreign policy.

There is nothing new in our Prime Ministers declaring that.

Successive Prime Ministers have said the same thing; Bill English usually appended “truly” in front of the phrase.

But now, within the context of the establishment of AUKUS, the Australia – United Kingdom – United States security partnership, Ardern’s words have added meaning.

Last Thursday, her response to the announcement of AUKUS was more tentative, with a focus on how our nuclear-free legislation meant Australia’s nuclear submarines would not be able to enter New Zealand ports.

Her comments yesterday came after her former Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, said on “Q+A” yesterday that it was disappointing that New Zealand had been left out of the consultations over the formation of AUKUS.

He suggested this may have been because his successor, Nanaia Mahuta, had sent the wrong signals after the election by saying that we were going to shift our priorities.

“The change I have always been concerned about because it said that we were going to change to something; but as to what it is and where we’re going to go, no one today knows,” he said.

Ardern was asked at her Covid press conference yesterday whether she agreed with him.

“No, unless he considers those signals to be legislation we’ve had since the mid-1980s,” she said and went on to recap the country’s anti-nuclear policy.

“I think that’s probably one of the strongest signals to those who were deliberating on this arrangement.

“New Zealand has a very firm, longstanding principle of not allowing into our internal waters or indeed supporting vessels that are indeed fully or partially powered by nuclear power or hold nuclear weapons.

“So that’s the signal. And it’s been a longstanding one.

“Sticking to that, I would say that our other really important principle has been our independent foreign policy,” she said.

“And I stand by that also.”

That contrasted with her approach last Thursday when she was asked about AUKUS, particularly about the independent foreign policy and what her reaction would be to the nuclear submarines going into the Pacific.

She did not address that part of the question but simply focussed on the Nuclear Free Act.

 “Well, certainly they couldn’t come into our internal waters. Our legislation means that nothing that is wholly or fully powered, no vessel that is wholly or fully, partially or fully powered by nuclear energy is able to enter into our internal waters,” she said.

And she seemed to go to partly defend the thinking behind AUKUS.

“I am pleased to see that the eye has been tuned to our region from partners that we work closely with because, of course, this is a contested region,” she said.

“There is a role that other others can play in taking an interest in our region.”

She did not mention the independent foreign policy.

These subtleties are important because there is a substantial difference between not welcoming the subs because of the nuclear-free legislation and not welcoming them because they represent an international alignment which we do not share.

Hugh White, The Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australia National University, spelt out what that alignment is in a weekend commentary on AUKUS.

“It (AUKUS) deepens our commitment to the United States’ military confrontation of China, which has little chance of success and carries terrifying risks,” he wrote.

Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, wrote at the weekend that AUKUS “shows our readiness to be hard-headed in defending our interests and challenging unfair practices and malign acts”,  a thinly veiled reference to China’s growing military prowess and aggressive approach to trade.

But within the Indo-Pacific region, there are concerns about the agreement.

Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed concern that it might spark a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, Japan and Singapore have both cautiously welcomed it.

But apart from French and Chinese media highlighting Ardern’s declaration that the submarines would not be able to enter New Zealand waters, New Zealand has been absent from any international discussion on the agreement.

It has, however, featured in what may be a parallel move by China which applied (by way of the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing) on Thursday night to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Asked whether China’s decision to join the CPTPP was related to the AUKUS, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said that the two were completely unrelated.

“China is promoting economic cooperation and regional economic integration, while the US is pushing for war and destruction,” he said at a press briefing in Beijing. 

Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said China could not join the grouping until it had convinced members of its “track record of compliance” with existing trade agreements and World Trade Organisation commitments. This process would require Beijing to resume high-level dialogue with Australia.

Japan’s Economy Minister Nishimura Yasutoshi said that “it’s necessary to determine whether China… is ready to meet [the CPTPP’s] extremely high standards.”

Analysts single out the CPTPP’s tough conditions on state-owned enterprises, labour standards, the free flow of data and government procurement as areas China will find difficult.

 Finance Minister Grant Robertson said on Friday that New Zealand welcomed any countries wanting to join “a high-functioning trade agreement”. 

“It is not just China who has expressed interest in this; other countries have in the past,” he said. “This is a very solid regional agreement that New Zealand exporters benefit from, and anything we can do to enhance a rules-based trade system around the world, we are always happy to look at.”

That is the way the Government would seem likely to continue to deal with foreign policy issues, cautiously and trying to tread a middle – or “independent” – line.