Foreign Minister Winston Peters

Just hours after the Prime Minister had insisted that New Zealand continued to maintain an “independent” foreign policy, his Foreign Minister was hinting that we may be starting to lean a little more toward the United States.

A press conference from Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and a speech from Foreign Minister Winston Peters yesterday offered the first real definition of the new government’s foreign policy priorities.

Luxon’s were clearly on trade.

“The message very clearly that I’ve tried to say over the last week or so is that New Zealand is under new management, and we are open for business,” he said.

But asked at his media conference whether the United States was pressuring New Zealand to take a side in the China-US standoff, he kicked for touch.

“New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, and I think there’s been very good bipartisan alignment around foreign policy positions with respect to the geo-political tensions that we see in the more consistent space that’s happening in our region,” he said.

That alignment has been centred on New Zealand staying out of defence alliances that might be construed as targeting China.

In his speech, Peters seemed dismissive of the whole concept of an independent foreign policy.

“Taking the world “as it is” and having our “eyes wide open” to potential threats has guided New Zealand foreign policy ever since we began charting our own course,” he said.

“And in that regard, you will all have observed the constant, and for many of you, perplexing refrains about New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy.”

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“We do have an independent foreign policy, but the Coalition Government also believes you have independent foreign policies too, forged through your own national experiences and the cultural expectations that grew out of them.

“Differences lie in our geographies, geologies, economies, populations, political systems, histories, and cultures. So, an independent foreign policy means different things to different countries.

“You all conduct on behalf of your respective countries the pursuit of your national interests, as do we, so one hopes that there the matter can rest. We are all equals here.”

Peters’ predecessor, Nanaia Mahuta, in a speech in July, talked about what she said were the “enormous benefits” of an independent foreign policy; “our role as an honest broker, and the importance of our close relationships in enhancing our prosperity and security.”

Writing in 2017, the Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Strategic Studies, Robert Ayson, said Labour might feel it owned the copyright to the idea that New Zealand had an independent foreign policy, “which is often interpreted as policy autonomy from the United States.”

“And there may be extra reasons for that in the Trump era.

“But Bill English has already taken the initiative by working with the new administration while distancing himself from the new president at crucial moments.

“The Key-English positions on China haven’t been miles away from Labour’s preferences either.”

Hence the bipartisan policy that Luxon was talking about.

But Peters took a different tack.

He didn’t place the independent foreign policy at the heart of New Zealand’s foreign policy.

Instead, he looked back to our traditional Anglo-Saxon allies.

“We will vigorously refresh our engagement with our traditional like-minded partners: Australia, our closest friend; the United States; Canada; and the United Kingdom, with a focus on how we advance shared interests and address strategic challenges,” he said.

“We will increase our focus, too, on important relationships across North Asia, South Asia including India, and Southeast Asia.”

In his speech, he mentioned China only once.

 “We judge our relationships with the United States, or the European Union, or China, or India and Japan, or with South America, for example, by what we can achieve together,” he said.

Peters offered an intriguing hint as to what New Zealand might achieve together with some of those countries.

“We will continue to support and defend an international rules-based system that reflects our values and supports our interests,” he said. 

“We will also target multilateral engagement on key global and transboundary issues and pursue opportunities presented by new, emerging ‘minilateral’ groupings.”

Writing in Foreign Policy last September, C Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute Delhi, said that  Asia and the Indo-Pacific have become minilateralism’s 21st-century testing ground.

“Asia’s minilaterals are largely a response to China’s rise and challenge to the regional balance of power,” he wrote.

“The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad and made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States pact (known as AUKUS) are the most prominent examples.”

Peters did not elaborate on which, if any, of those minlaterals New Zealand might pursue opportunities.

But he did reassert New Zealand’s support for its membership of Five Eyes.

“We intend to re-invigorate our defence and security engagement, including with the United States and our Five Eyes partners, as well as with other key security partners in the region and beyond,” he said.

POLITIK understands that Peters is to meet China’s Ambassador in Wellington, Wang Xiaolong, today.

The Ambassador’s reaction to the direction that Peters’ speech took will be interesting.

Meanwhile, Trade Minister Todd McClay is off to Delhi to pursue a free trade agreement, which Luxon promised to get in his first term as Prime Minister.

However, any free trade agreement with India is highly unlikely to include improved access for New Zealand’s dairy industry.

And in turn, India has made it clear it would seek to ease some immigration restrictions on Indians.

Thus, Luxon was left trying to explain why he might agree to a deal that did not contain dairy but increased Indian migration at exactly the same time as he was saying (as he did yesterday) that immigration was too high.

“We want to see more trade with India,” he said.

“That starts with relationships first and foremost.

“And then from there will now a series of things about how we can flow capital, investment, trade, people to people connections and from there we will take it forward.”

Luxon said New Zealand business needed to build its literacy in Asian markets, how to distribute and promote products how to advertise them and which consumers to target.

“I think we’ve got huge opportunities if you think about the RCEP agreement, which was developed under both governments, really,” he said.

But he didn’t say that China has been a strong supporter of RCEP.

Chinese commentators argue that the agreement helps attract foreign investment to China.

Luxon also didn’t note that the RCEP member countries could not meet India’s demands during its formation negotiations, and it eventually pulled out.

But Luxon doesn’t want to stop in India.

“We’ve got huge opportunities for New Zealanders to build their literacy in Southeast Asia, in particular in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, those kind of markets,” he said.

Ultimately, it could be that Luxon’s desire to see trade increase across Asia might trump Peters’ apparent preference for New Zealand’s traditional Anglo-Saxon allies.

After all, it has been trade that has underpinned New Zealand’s political relationship with China.

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