Brigadier Jim Bliss, NZ Defence Adviser at the NATO Military Committee in Brussels a week ago

“There is a feeling I get when I look to the west” – Led Zepplin, ‘Stairway to Heaven

In the hours before she flew out to the United States and possibly a meeting with President Biden, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern firmly nailed New Zealand’s colours to the western-bloc mast in its confrontations with both Russia and China.

Ardern last night confirmed that New Zealand would join the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is intended to challenge China’s economic leadership in the region.

And the government stepped up its opposition to Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

She announced that an artillery training team of up to 30 personnel would be deployed to the United Kingdom to help train Ukrainian military personnel in operating L119 105mm light field guns.

And on Saturday, in Bangkok, Trade Minister Damien O’Connor walked out of an APEC Trade Ministers’ meeting when a Russian Minister got up to speak in protest at the Ukraine invasion.

The decision to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework  (IPEF) is not a surprise.

US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, confirmed yesterday that New Zealand would join US allies such as Australia, Japan,  and South Korea along with nine other countries, including India,  in the Framework.

But it is not a trade agreement and offers no access to the US market, a failure that has seen Singapore join the Framework but continue to endorse China joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership.

Getty Images Japan Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida; President Joe Biden and India Prime Minister, Narendra Modi at the ceremony to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo last night. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participated remotely.

The US Administration is unashamedly “American-first” about the IPEF.

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“We believe that expanding US economic leadership in the Indo-Pacific through vehicles like IPEF is good for America — American workers and businesses as well as for the people in the region,” Sullivan said.

He said it was designed to put American workers at its centre.

“The fact that this is not a traditional free trade agreement is a feature of IPEF, not a bug. 

“There are free trade traditionalists who have raised questions about it. 

“Our fundamental view is that the new landscape and the new challenges we face need a new approach, and we will shape the substance of this effort together with our partners.”

Biden unveiled the IPEF in Tokyo last night with leaders of the Quad countries; India, Australia and Japan.

Ardern participated remotely from Auckland Airport before she got on her plane for the US.

“New Zealand and the wider region will benefit from deepened economic engagement by the US, and I’m pleased that President Biden has driven this initiative forward,” she said last night

“The Indo-Pacific region is of the utmost importance for New Zealand’s strategic and economic interests. We see this Framework as an opportunity to enhance our strong partnerships with major regional economies as we continue to reconnect with the world.

Ardern made it plain earlier yesterday in her post-Cabinet press conference that New Zealand’s preferred position was for the United States to join the CPTPP.

She said that the IPEF offered New Zealand a point to engage with the United States whilst making sure we continued to push the broader trade agreements.

“I think what’s important is we’re signalling our desire to be at the table during those early conversations, even before getting into negotiations, so that we are able to shape it and support shaping it into something that is meaningful,” she said.

“It’s not what’s been pitched as a traditional trade arrangement, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ease the pathway for trade in some ways.

“It doesn’t mean that it can’t make progress on sustainability or digital issues.

“And so long as those subject matters are on the table, I think it’s important that New Zealand is part of the talks.”

Scepticism about the proposal is widespread across the region.

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the “so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ is essentially a strategy to create division, a strategy to incite confrontation and a strategy to undermine peace”.

Reuters quoted a Japanese Finance Ministry official who said many countries in the region were reluctant to sign up because of the lack of practical incentives like tariff reductions.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Nikkei Asia that the Biden framework was “not quite a substitute” for the CPTPP.

While the US President was heading to Tokyo to launch the IPEF, APEC’s trade ministers were meeting in Bangkok.

Trade Minister Damien O’Connor at the APEC Trade Ministers’ meeting in Bangkok

But as suggested last week in POLITIK, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor was among Ministers from five countries that walked out of the meeting in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when Maxim Reshetnikov, Russia’s Minister for Economic Development, was set to deliver his opening remarks.

Ardern indicated that O’Connor’s walkout was consistent with New Zealand policy towards Russia.,

“There have been a number of circumstances now where we have seen at an international forum when Russia has been present and that while those events have continued at the point that the Russian representative has made their contribution, you have seen walkouts from often many countries at once,” Ardern said yesterday.

“I think these are examples of where forums are continuing; Russia continues to participate, but countries are choosing to send a very clear message through those actions around their view on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“So this really reflects what’s been happening in other forums.”

The divisions within APEC at the weekend over Ukraine with China and Russia both attending were such that the meeting could not agree on a final communique.

Both the IPEF decision and the Bangkok walkout firmly position New Zealand, perhaps more than at any time since the ANZUS breakup in 1985, alongside the US and its Asian allies, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

And the decision to send military personnel to Britain to train Ukraine soldiers is another move bringing New Zealand and NATO closer together.

Just over a week ago, New Zealand’s Defence Advisor at the London High Commission, Brigadier Jim Bliss, along with officers from Japan, Australia and Korea, attended a meeting of NATO’s Military Committee at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Once again, New Zealand was included with formal US allies in the meeting.

The decision to send the training officers to Britain is likely to spring from that meeting.

But the chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, suggested that the Asia Pacific countries had come to NATO because they too faced a challenge from a different superpower to NATO’s focus Russia.

 “Together with Finland and Sweden, and our Asia-Pacific Partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand and The Republic of South Korea, the Allied Chiefs of Defence discussed how we can best assess all global security developments that affect our Alliance,” he said.

Bauer said the four Asia-Pacific countries were challenged in a different way than the European member of NATO.

“But we exchanged those experiences of what we did, and I think to learn from each other when it comes to the rules-based international order and the challenges that face both NATO’s nations and the four nations that visited us today,” he said.

“They are in many ways similar, and so we learn from each other.

“So this is a commitment of those nations and of NATO for a longer-term.”

As New Zealand gets drawn back into the western alliance, it will be inevitable that there will be questions about the country’s defence expenditure.

Already ACT and a National Party regional conference have called for it to be raised from 1.4 per cent to two per cent of GDP.

And significantly within the Asia-Pacific region, Japan is currently proposing to raise its defence expenditure from one to two per cent of GDP.

All of this adds up to a sharpening confrontation within the Asia-Pacific region.

Now that New Zealand has effectively chosen aside, that will surely start to bring its own challenges.