Foreign Minister Winston Peters is thanked for his speech by the patron of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, the former Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand

Winston Peters’ much anticipated foreign policy speech last night was a work of two halves.

Much of it was a standard “boilerplate” Foreign Ministry overview of the state of the world.

There was some hardening up of rhetoric with talk of “benign” becoming “malign” and old truths giving way to new ones.

That was an oblique reference to former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s 2001 declaration that we lived in a benign strategic environment.

And though Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and Western diplomats like to emphasise that the world has changed since then, the reference was part of a broader attack on Clark threaded through the speech.

Indeed, there were so many references in the second part of the speech to Labour, Chris Hipkins and Helen Clark, that one senior Ambassador present told POLITIK  he thought the speech was aimed as much at a domestic political audience as it was the invited diplomatic heads of mission.

Whereas the strategic assessment sounded like MFAT, the politics sounded like pure Peters (or possibly pure Jon Johansson, his political advisor on foreign affairs).

He said that the foreign policy reset had brought about a shift from incoherence to coherence.

“After three years of foreign policy incoherence and concerted drift under Labour, our Cabinet endorsed early in its term a foreign policy reset that would reinvigorate and focus our foreign, defence and trade policy agendas,” Peters said.

“This realism is a shift from our predecessors’ vaguer notions of an indigenous foreign policy that no one else understood, let alone shared.”

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Central to the policy reset is an argument that the world has changed from the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The trick now, as it was then, is to have one’s eyes wide open about the fundamental shifts that are taking place and be nimble enough in government, and through government support systems, to adapt to them,” he said.

Of course, MFAT and Peters are talking about China being the “fundamental shift,” but during his speech, Peters was careful not to be that specific.

However, he dropped his guard in his subsequent press conference when asked to define what he meant by the strategic environment having become “malign.”

“Have you not watched even today there was a Filipino ship being challenged in the South  China Sea,” he said.

“These are circumstances which go to the very heart of our future supply lines.”

According to Philippine officials, a coast guard ship and a fishing vessel were damaged on Tuesday by water cannons deployed by the Chinese coast guard while on their approach to the contested Scarborough Shoal to help Filipino fishermen in the region.

No country has sovereignty over the strategically located Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing patch close to major shipping lanes used by several countries. The shoal falls inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but China claims sovereignty and has been a constant flashpoint between the Philippines and China.

Peters was cautious in his formal comments about China.

In March, we were delighted to host China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi,” he said.

“While an innately complex relationship, we celebrated with China ten years since the bilateral relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Relationship.

“With tariff-free access for our dairy products in China secured, our economic relationship continues to flourish.

“We welcomed the positive and frank discussions we had with Wang Yi, both on issues we agreed on and those we did not, and look forward to further engagements with China this year and over the term.”

He dodged a question from an Institute of International Affairs member who asked if he agreed with Henry Kissinger that China and the US should not expect each other to act like the other but should progress together.

Peters replied that China had not survived for 5000 years because it was not very clever and had brilliant leaders, and “of course, 5000 years ago, our DNA shows we left from there.”

Nevertheless, foreign policy emphasis is now clearly centred on a wariness of China’s intentions in the region.

And that means a return to the old Anglo allies.

“Through our vigorous diplomatic engagement, we have shown traditional and like-minded partners, and those whom New Zealand has neglected for too long, that the New Zealand Government is back internationally and ready to forge more active, more mutually advantageous relationships,” he said.

But those relationships may come with a price.

“A number of traditional and like-minded partners have accentuated to us in these troubled times, contributing to global and regional security is not a luxury, it is a necessity given the number and severity of challenges faced across the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East,” he said.

“Here, New Zealand needs to ask hard questions of itself. As we seek a more secure region and world, are we doing our share? Across Europe, in South East Asia, and across Pacific Rim countries, nations are stepping up to play their part in defence arrangements.

“So must we, because it is a key metric of how others judge us, a point made clear repeatedly during our first five months of engagements. New Zealand’s long history of parsimony when it comes to defence cannot hold if we wish to continue garnering respect from, and influence on, others.”

Later, he told journalists there was nothing unusual in his advocating for more defence expenditure.

“I have made speeches like that for 25 years,” he said.

“I’ve always said that I also would like to increase our foreign affairs funding, as I said tonight, massively.”

As to what percentage of GDP should be spent on defence, he said that when he went to NATO, 20 of its members were on two percent; some were on four percent.

However, the big question hovering over defence now is whether New Zealand will join Pillar Two of AUKUS.

And hovering over that is a paragraph in the communique issued after Peters met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington last month.

It said the two countries saw powerful reasons for New Zealand engaging practically with AUKUS “as and when all parties deem it appropriate.”

Peters was keen to emphasise that qualification last night, telling journalists he had “personally, specifically” placed it in the communique.

And it seems that qualification is roughly where things are at present.

“The precondition is that AUKUS partners need to want us to participate in Pillar 2 and invite us to do so,” he said.

“That precondition has not yet been met, which is why we are exploring with our traditional partners the scope of Pillar 2 and seeking a much more detailed understanding of what this involves.

“Indeed, it is not yet fully clear to us what criteria AUKUS partners will use when considering the participation of new countries in Pillar 2.    

“This government, like its predecessor, has its ministers and officials seeking information and discussing it with their counterparts so that we can better understand what opportunities and benefits Pillar 2’s advanced technologies may offer New Zealand.

“We must also carefully examine what utilities, if any, we might offer or be expected to offer Pillar 2 partners in return. That will take time.”

It would seem, though, that New Zealand is leaning towards one day joining Pillar Two.

“At that future point, we will need to carefully weigh up the economic and security benefits and costs of any decision about whether participating in Pillar 2 is in the national interest,” he said.

“The Government is a long way from this point of being able to make such a decision.       

“But we should emphasise that it would be utterly irresponsible for any government of any stripe to not consider whether collaborating with like-minded partners on advances in technology is in our national interest.”

POLITIK The sole AUKUS protester at Peters’ speech last night before she was carried out by Pariamentray security officers

He interrupted his speech to urge a sole female protestor holding a placard to leave, but her presence was a reminder that the usual bi-partisan consensus on foreign policy appeared to be breaking down over AUKUS.

He was keen to point out that under the Labour Government, officials had begun talks about AUKUS shortly after the project was announced in September 2021, and the Cabinet was briefed a month later.

And in what will cause some embarrassment within Labour, he set out what had then happened.

“In 2023, after almost two years of careful consideration, Labour’s Prime Minister, in concert with his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, sanctioned officials to begin discussions with AUKUS partners about Pillar 2’s scope and architecture,” he said.

“Exploratory, information-gathering discussions in Canberra, London, and Washington did not spontaneously occur.

“Officials were mandated to conduct them by the Labour Government. That choice was consistent with former Prime Minister Hipkins’s statement last year: “Our region is now a strategic theatre.”

Peters rubbed that in.

“Openness in government is transforming before our eyes into close-mindedness in opposition,” he said.

“We are disquieted by any potential breakdown in foreign policy bipartisanship over Pillar 2.

“Bipartisanship in foreign policy is not a luxury for our small state, it’s a necessary condition for advancing our sovereign interests effectively, thereby keeping New Zealanders secure and prosperous.

“We urge them to hold their nerve.”

As is becoming usual these days in briefings from foreign affairs officials or now Peters in public, the line is that intelligence that cannot be shared would show how serious the threat in the region is and, therefore, the need for a deterrent like AUKUS.

However, even Peters admits that intelligence cannot always be relied on, and he then made an extraordinary leap linking the New York Twin Tower bombings to Clark’s “benign strategic environment comments.”

“By example, there was a massive intelligence failure in the early 2000s, one which prompted a former New Zealand Prime Minister to declare the country existed in an “incredibly benign strategic environment” even as planning was well advanced for the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” he said.

Clark is leading the charge against the foreign policy reset and New Zealand joining AUKUS.

As far as Peters is concerned, she is now the target.

Meanwhile, the foreign policy appears to be a retreat back to our traditional allies, back to the age, perhaps, before Helen Clark,

.