US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell greets Bede Cory, outgoing New Zealand Ambassador to the US and the new Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade designate as Foreign Minister Winstyon Peters looks on with (back left) senior MFAT official, Taha Macpherson and Peters' foreign policy advisor, Jon Johansson.

While commentators, including former Prime Minister Helen Clark, are noting a subtle shift in New Zealand’s foreign policy, which now places more emphasis on the United States, many have missed a key element of the shift.

What National said before the election is not what the government is doing now.

It would seem that the harder foreign policy line long preferred by NZ First Leader Winston Peters has prevailed over National’s traditional support for an independent foreign policy as promoted by former Ministers like Murray McCully and Gerry Brownlee.

Peters, in a series of recent interviews and in formal statements has begun to sharpen up his rhetoric about the potential security threat that China may pose to the East Asian region.

And he is suggesting that New Zealand is about to get closer to the United States on defence.

But ironically, with the Prime Minister embarking today on a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia, a survey from a major Singaporean think tank last week indicates that the mood within the countries that make up Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is moving to a more neutral position with respect to China and the United States, much closer to National’s traditional position.

In the background meanwhile has been a increasingly louder clamour from the right in Australian politics for New Zealand to join the AUKUS submarine project.

And there was even a suggestion in the official communique after Peters met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday that New Zealand might join the Quad—the grouping of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia set up specifically to confront China in the Indo-Pacific.

“We share the view that arrangements such as the Quad, AUKUS, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity contribute to peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and see powerful reasons for New Zealand engaging practically with them, as and when all parties deem it appropriate,” the communique said.

That statement contrasted oddly with a comment from the Prime Minister quoted in Friday’s Australian when asked about AUKUS.

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“It’s something we haven’t yet contemplated,” he said.

The communique suggestion that New Zealand might join the Quad would be a significant shift in New Zealand’s foreign policy and was not foreshadowed in National’s election manifesto.

That was vague about how New Zealand’s relationship with the US might unfold: “The United States and New Zealand have always shared values and enjoy enduring friendship. National will affirm the long and positive history between our two countries.”

The Quad statement follows another surprising line in a communique signed by Peters.

On February 1, after he and Defence Minister Judith Collins met their counterparts in Melbourne, the official communique said: “Ministers noted the enduring nature of the ANZUS Treaty, which continues to underpin the strategic relationship between the two countries, 72 years after it was signed, and formalises the commitments we have to each other as allies.”

It is technically correct that New Zealand remains a member of ANZUS.

New Zealand has never formally written a resignation letter to the Treaty partners.

However, the US suspension of its security guarantee in 1985 meant, as far as successive New Zealand governments were concerned, that ANZUS was, to use David Lange’s phrase “a dead letter.”

The Prime Minister seemed to acknowledge this in his formal press statement announcing his trip to Australia to meet Prime Minister Anthony Albanese just before Christmas when he described Australia as New Zealand’s “only ally”.

This raises the question of whether Winston Peters’s statements in communiques issued overseas is Government policy or simply his interpretation of it.

It was a question raised on TVOne’s “Q+A” yesterday by the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who Peters also served as Foreign Minister.

She said there had been no warning before the election that a government of the centre-right would very quickly swerve to much greater active engagement with the United States in the form of formal agreements like AUKUS.

“So there’s a lack of transparency here,” she said.

POLITIK understands that concern may extend to within the National caucus, which is not believed to have discussed the foreign policy shift that Peters is promoting.

One Cabinet Minister told POLITIK that Peters’ policies seemed to be a “blend of opportunism and nostalgia.”

Some previous coalition governments have placed Associate Ministers from the main party alongside Ministers from the minor parties in a coalition to ensure that what the Minister is saying and doing is consistent with the overall direction of the government.

That has not happened with Peters. (This is incorrect; Todd McClay is Associate Minister)

Peters has been opaque at best with media when questioned about his foreign policy direction.

FREDDIE EVERETT Foreign Minister Winston Peters with US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell

Speaking on a Zoom call to journalists last Thursday, he would not even confirm that he would be discussing AUKUS in the talks he was due to have in Washington on Friday morning with the US Deputy Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell.

Campbell has been the US’s leading advocate of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

When the project was unveiled last year the three countries leaders proclaimed that they believed in a world that protected freedom and respected human rights, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the rules-based international order.

“The steps we are announcing today will help us to advance these mutually beneficial objectives in the decades to come.,” they said.

But Campbell, speaking a week ago to the Washington Centre for a New American Security, indicated that he saw the submarines’ potential role as an aggressive one.

“AUKUS  has the potential to have submarines from a number of countries operating in close coordination that could deliver conventional ordnance from, long distances,” he said

“Those have enormous implications in a variety of scenarios, including in cross-strait circumstances.”

The cross-strait he was referring to was clearly the Taiwan Strait, and the conventional ordinance would have been aimed at China.

Campbell has said that it is gratifying that New Zealand is interested in joining Pillar Two of AUKUS, which, judging by the communique and despite Peters’ reticence on the media call, was obviously discussed at the Campbell-Peters meeting on Friday.

But what Pillar Two might involve beyond broad assertations that it will be about developing the high tech needed to run the submarines is a mystery.

“What are we up for?” asked Clark on “Q+A”.

“What exactly are the capabilities that New Zealand needs? How much are we prepared to spend? Where is this leading us? Do we really need quantum technology? Do we need offensive cyber warfare capacity? Do we need hypersonic weapons?

“This is very high-tech military equipment.

“So I think New Zealanders need to be aware that there could be considerable costs with this.”

Chuck Kennedy / State Department Foreign Minister Winston Peters with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Friday

The former Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University and the author of a soon-to-be-published book on New Zealand security in the 21st century, Jim Rolfe, said yesterday that he understood that the current technical cooperation programme between the Five Eyes countries covered all of Pillar 2 “and much, much more.”

“ But that is primarily research-based.

“Pillar 2 is about production, and I understand that membership is on an all-or-nothing basis and there is a cost.

“If produced, you buy, to put it crudely.”

In other words, New Zealand would be unable to commit on a project-by-project basis but would instead have to commit to purchasing everything.

If New Zealand were to join Pilla Two, it would be a swing away from the independent foreign policy the country has pursued since the end of the ANZUS guarantee in 1985.

The Prime Minister is travelling to three ASEAN capitals this week on his first major foreign policy trip since becoming PM.

But ironically, as we seem ready to move closer to America, ASEAN may be edging away.

A survey of 2000 people across the 11 ASEAN countries by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies showed China as having just passed the United States (by 50.5 to 49.5 per cent) as the preferred option if the region were forced to align itself in the ongoing US-China rivalry. The US as a choice dropped from 61.1% in the previous year to 49.5%.

The survey was also bad news for New Zealand.

It came at the bottom of a list of ASEAN’s 11 “dialogue partners” ‘in terms of its strategic relevance to the region.

Australia was well ahead of New Zealand, and so were non-regional countries like Canada and Russia.

The whole foreign affairs arena around the world has become much more tumultuous in recent months.

That is all the more reason why moving New Zealand’s foreign policy in a new direction surely requires more public debate than has been evident so far.