President Biden's Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell. at the Otago Foreign Policy School in 2018

The Biden administration yesterday defined what it wants its relationship with New Zealand to be.

It might be summed up as “close friend” rather than ally.

That will ease fears in Wellington that the country might be pressured to join the “Quad” group of countries (US, Japan, Australia, India), which has a clear agenda to contain and, if necessary, confront China.

The new definition came in a speech yesterday to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs conference from Kurt Campbell, a Democrat and diplomat who is well known to the New Zealand foreign policy establishment.

Campbell, who weathered the Trump years in a consulting business, is now President Biden’s “Asia co-ordinator” or “Asia Tsar” as he has been dubbed by some commentators.

He was previously Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration.

Campbell was preceded by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who, picking up on comments made by Nanaia Mahuta two weeks ago, enlarged on New Zealand’s new acceptance of the phrase Indo-Pacific to describe our region.

During the previous term, both she and Foreign Minister Winston Peters resisted embracing the Indo-Pacific description, instead preferring Asia-Pacific.

That resistance was probably about not wanting to provoke China which sees the United States led description of the region as an attempt to “stoke bloc confrontation and create cliques for geopolitical games.

“It marks the comeback of Cold War mentality and retrogression and should be tossed into the dustbin of history,” China’s  Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said as recently as Tuesday.

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But yesterday, Ardern said: “We have embraced the concept of an Indo-Pacific as the wider home for New Zealand, locating Aotearoa in a larger ecosystem of nations and regions that includes East Asia, the Pacific, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim.”

These words matter because they denote an acceptance by New Zealand of the United States characterisation of China as a strategic rival.

Ardern described China’s role in the Indo-Pacific as an engine of global growth “and one of our most significant, but also one of our increasingly complex relationships.”

And she set out for the first time the conditions under which New Zealand accepts the Indo-Pacific description.

“While we welcome the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, we do so based on the principles that have served New Zealand well and are consistent with our values,” she said.

“From New Zealand’s perspective, these fundamental principles include respect for rules: consistency with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation and overflight.

“Openness: that the region is open for trade, investment, and the movement of people to support prosperity and open supply chains.

“Inclusivity: that all countries in the region can participate.

“That sovereignty is upheld and respected.

“Transparency: that states are honest about their foreign policy objectives and initiatives beyond their borders. 

“In our view, the Indo-Pacific region will need to conduct its affairs in accordance with these principles if it is to successfully address common challenges.”

Ardern’s statement contrasts markedly with comments made by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on his way to the G7 summit last month when he too tried to define his country’s understanding of what Indo-Pacific meant.

“Our interests are inextricably linked to an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific region,” he said.

“That is our interest.

“And to a strategic balance in the region that favours freedom and allows us to be who we are – a vibrant liberal democracy, an outward-looking open economy, a free people determined to shape our own destiny in accordance with our own national sovereignty.”

He said that Australia’s challenge “is nothing less than to reinforce, renovate and buttress a world order that favours freedom.”

This raises questions in New Zealand that what Australia might be proposing for the Indo-Pacific region is a sort of NATO, some form of alliance that might directly confront China.

But in recent speeches, Campbell has stepped back from that, and yesterday, he outlined a more conciliatory approach to China.

“The United States does not seek a Cold War,” he said.

“We do not seek a harmful or deleterious competition with China.

“What we are seeking is a stable relationship.

“We recognise that the dominant feature of that relationship will be competition, but we believe that competition can often bring out the best in countries and people.”

He said that much of the competition would be focused on technical issues like 5G, artificial intelligence and computer sciences.

He said the United States wanted to work with partners.

“The difference you will see from the Biden administration from the previous Trump administration is that we will seek to do things more with partners,” he said.

“And we recognise that the only way we can be effective locally is to work more generally and creatively and strategically with partners.

“And so you’re going to hear a lot more about working, not only with countries that are involved in Five Eyes and allies, but also Japan and South Korea and other countries in Southeast Asia.

“And we believe that NZ has an absolutely critical role to play.”

Campbell appeared to address the comments from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, saying New Zealand would not join Five Eyes in statements on foreign policy issues like human rights but would, instead, seek ad hoc partners for those statements.

“It is often the case that New Zealand and the United States have discussions about how we see the world, and they are among the most productive and helpful, illuminating discussions that I have on policy,” he said.

“I would just say the United States is very satisfied with our engagement, and we believe that New Zealand is a very productive partner in the Five Eyes process.”

But formally, that is as far as the relationship goes.

New Zealand is not a member of the Quad  (or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as it is properly known) with Japan, Australia and India, which includes joint military exercises as part of its brief.

China sees the Quad as a body set up to confront it.

A recent commentary in “The Global Times” said, “the formation of this grouping was driven by a confrontational Cold War mentality with a major purpose of containing China’s rise.”

But a second grouping was developed last year alongside the Quad, the so-called “Quad Plus” of Viet Nam, South Korea and New Zealand, along with the four members of the Quad itself.

In their virtual meetings, the countries focussed on managing the Covid pandemic and on the economic consequences of it.

Campbell said that he did not see the Quad as some new type of military alliance or a type of NATO.

He said it was a practical alliance that could deal with issues such as a recent commitment to have India produce a vaccine for ASEAN nations next year. It could also be involved in building infrastructure in the region, an obvious counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“I believe the overtime that it will be possible, indeed valuable. If we think about having associations that might be described as friends of the Quad in which countries that are particularly y interested in some of the working groups and work that is being undertaken on cybersecurity, maritime on humanitarian relief; that there are opportunities for like-minded other states to join in,” he said.

“I can think of no other partner I’d love to see involved more than New Zealand.”

But a usual response from politicians in both Labour and National when asked to consider closer ties with the United States is to ask in turn when New Zealand might expect a free trade agreement with the US.

Campbell was not quite so forthcoming on this.

“It’s hard to say this, but I ask for a degree of patience and recognition of some of the challenges that we face,” he said.

“And I think the President has indicated that he wants to be a full partner across a full spectrum of issues across the Indo-Pacific.

“And so I would simply say watch this space.”

Speaking to the Otago Foreign Policy School in 2018, Campbell warned that the populist political forces that elected Trump were likely to become permanently incorporated into the American political culture.

“This (Trump) is not some bizarre anomaly,” he said.

“This is not something that in two years people will say what was that about.

“This is serious and fundamental.”

An important element in that populism was opposition to free trade.

What Campbell might well have been subtly saying was that the chances of the Biden administration getting a free trade agreement with New Zealand through the US Congress would be almost zero.

So though we may be friends, that friendship will be tempered by the free trade reality on the one hand and the principles of New Zealand’s unique “independent foreign policy” on the other.