The China dragon appears to have not even been in the room when Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong met her New Zealand counterpart yesterday.
That, said one New Zealand official, was because both countries are now on the same page regarding their relations with China.
There was, therefore, no need to talk about the country, the official told POLITIK.
Wong was careful to dodge questions at the post-talks media conference, which related to Australia’s aggressive anti-China stance.
Instead, she wanted to talk about how Australia and New Zealand could work together in the Pacific and how Australia could learn from New Zealand about how to incorporate indigenous values into its foreign policy.
But both Ministers did reply directly when asked what they made of China’s moves to extend its military operations in the Taiwan Strait.
The official referred POLITIK to the answers as an example of how the trans-Tasman nations were of a like mind.
“We’ve experienced a real challenge in terms of China’s influence across the Indo-Pacific region,” said Mahuta.
“Can I just say that in the latest readout of my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, I reflected our views and that area that we want greater stability and peace to be the priority, and that will be very important.
‘And we’ll commit ourselves to and to ensuring that that remains the message and the focus in the Taiwan Strait.”
Wong was straightforward.
“Our long-standing position is very clear,” she said.
“We support the status quo, and we would urge there be no unilateral changes which would disrupt the status quo in relation to the status of Taiwan.”
It was clear from the visit of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to the White House that New Zealand had moved its foreign policy emphasis closer to Washington.
Certainly, the Chinese noticed.
A commentary on June 1 in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, “Global Times”, said: “New Zealand is leaning toward echoing the US’ concerns and distorting China’s role in the (Pacific) region, and such changing rhetoric reflects both its own neocolonial mindset and growing pressure from the US that it cannot withstand.”
But it is clear the two Ministers have concerns about what China is doing in the Pacific.
China tends to provide aid as soft loans rather than grants which is how Australia and New Zealand deliver aid.
A 2019 Lowy Institute study found that three small Pacific economies — Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu —appeared to be among those most heavily indebted to China anywhere in the world.
“The sustainability and of debt financing for developing countries, particularly those in our region, is of interest to both our nations,” said Wong.
“It goes to sovereignty and choice, and it goes to stability.
“It also potentially goes to security of the region.
“So think we both our nations, both our countries, are seized as are other members of the Pacific Island Forum about the importance of debt arrangements, which are reasonable and fair and which avoid countries being unduly burdened, not just in the now, but in the decades to come.”
Mahuta said New Zealand needed a broader approach to the Pacific beyond looking mainly at the Polynesian islands of the region.
“In our conversations, we’ve identified that we need to broaden our collective approach in terms of the relationship across the whole of the Pacific,” she said.
“And we both agreed that things have changed.
“The Pacific is a contested space, and we need to work together through regional institutions to support the Pacific in their aspirations.
“That will require, by and large, an aligned effort, but it will also rely on our ability to broaden our relationship.
“And we’ve both identified that that is needed now. Things have changed.
“We are in a new conversation space around where the Pacific priorities must be led from.”
What obviously impressed Wong was Mahuta’s approach to the Pacific through the lens of indigenous peoples.
“I think we can learn a lot about the way you have worked and learned to work together and some of the difficult things you have addressed,” said Wong.
“I think the respect both in some of your legal frameworks, but also in terms of how you talk about who you are is different, and that’s a journey we’re on.
“And you know, I always used to say during the election that there are many reasons why I wanted to win government for the country, and one of the first among them was the hope that we could be part of a government that could work with our First Nations people to implement the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” with all of its power and graciousness.”
The Uluru Statement signed by leaders of Australia’s indigenous people talks about “the torment of our powerlessness” and calls for an Aboriginal Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution and for a Commission to investigate past wrongdoings and engage in “truth-telling” about the process of colonisation.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he is committed to a referendum on establishing a Constitutional Voice but has yet to announce a date for that to occur.
Pacific countries will be watching that closely as an indication of whether Australia is really ready to commit to what Wong has repeatedly said is the “Pacific family.”
“I think you know that Australia has more to do as a member of the Pacific family,” Wong said yesterday.
Wong and Mahuta lunched together yesterday before formal talks, and officials said their lunch conversation focused on an indigenous perspective on foreign policy.
“I particularly wanted to emphasise that we see New Zealand as family, and we see our partnership is indispensable,” said Wong.
“And we know we can always rely on each other.
“One of the areas I am most grateful that we did engage on was in having an indigenous perspective on foreign policy, and the Foreign Minister brings such a depth of personal wisdom to that.
“One of the differences between the past and the new Australian Government is we are committed to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
“I want as Foreign Minister for that to be part of how we talk about ourselves to the world and how we engage with the world as well as what we do domestically.”
Throughout the joint media conference yesterday, Wong was keen to point out that the new Australian Government was different to the last.
“We come with a range of different priorities and objectives; a very different view on climate change to our predecessors and a very strong focus on the region,” she said.
“I want we want a strong working relationship, a close working relationship with the Government of New Zealand.
“We have a such a close friendship between our two nations, and that is part of who we are.
“It’s also essential for the security and well-being of our citizens, even more so in the world in which we stand.
“We’re allies, we’re friends, and we’re partners in the region.
“And the world that, as the minister said, is experiencing a much sharper set of challenges.”
And just as Australia has moved closer to New Zealand’s view of the world, particularly on climate change and the rights of indigenous people, so New Zealand also has moved closer to Australia’s views on the security challenges in the region.
Mates once more?