Foreign Affairs

NZ’s not-so-uneventful world in 2019

Any hopes for a less eventful year in foreign policy for New Zealand were swiftly dismissed following the March 15 terror attack. And following a 2019 where the Government made some notable moves on the world stage, Robert Ayson and David Capie say foreign policy may have a more prominent role in the election than usual.

COMMENT: After a whirlwind 2018, the makers of New Zealand foreign policy might have expected a slightly less eventful year when they returned from their brief summer break in January.  The coalition government was already more than a year old, and much of the initial tone setting was accomplished.

New Zealand’s position on China had firmed up considerably and while Donald Trump was still rattling plenty of international cages, Wellington was getting used to his rhetorical brand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had made an obligatory but unsurprisingly unsuccessful attempt to change Australia’s thinking on offshore asylum seekers, and the coalition’s early wobbles on Russia had been gradually replaced by a less discordant stance.

With the P-8s procurement decision, New Zealand’s biggest defence purchase since the Anzac frigates had been approved, and the Pacific Reset, also with considerable expenditure attached, had been launched.

Foreign policy in 2019 may have seemed likely to be about the consolidation of New Zealand’s adjustment to a troubling world. But the attack by a solitary gunman on worshippers at two Christchurch mosques on the afternoon of 15 March put an end to any such expectation. Suddenly, New Zealand joined the list of countries devastated by white nationalist terror.  The international policy implications were several.

First, in reaching out compassionately to New Zealand’s Muslim communities and in carrying that message of tolerance and inclusion to the United Nations General Assembly, New Zealand’s Prime Minister came under the spotlight internationally when Trump was preaching the opposite message. Second, with the Christchurch Call, New Zealand took the international lead on the shaping of new norms for a new challenge. Third, the Royal Commission of Inquiry which will report back in 2020 will undoubtedly have messages of its own for New Zealand’s intelligence and security community.

But it would be inaccurate to see the whole of New Zealand’s 2019 foreign policy experience through this one harrowing lens. If we are looking for unifying trends, one of the main candidates has to be the Ardern government’s use of the South Pacific as the meeting place for its main international policy priorities.

The Pacific has increasingly become a priority area for New Zealand's foreign policy - but not without some differing approaches within the coalition. File photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Here, the tensions between the progressive message of Ardern and the more conservative views of Peters came into sharp relief. It is the South Pacific where New Zealand’s climate change emphasis came alive as a foreign-policy instrument - and where the contrasts with traditional partners Australia and the United States were most evident.

But it is also the South Pacific where New Zealand’s concerns about China’s growing influence became more urgent. This saw Mr Peters repeatedly reaching out to Washington for more help, and the Government’s statement on Advancing Pacific Partnerships talk up links with “like-minded partners” (i.e. not China).

But in other spheres, New Zealand policymakers were looking to bypass the deficit in US leadership by forming coalitions among other like-mindeds, especially other small states. One pointer to that future is an embryonic process with Fiji, Costa Rica, Ireland and Norway which seeks to make trade safe for a climate change era. Another is negotiations for a Digital Economic Partnership Agreement with Chile and Singapore. Both are reminiscent of the select group of free trade advocates which preceded the TPP, which as the CPTPP enjoyed its first year of existence (without US participation) in 2019.

But some parts of New Zealand’s trade diversification ambitions still seem far off in the distance. The year did not indicate that there would be rapid progress on the much-prized free trade deal with the European Union. Ardern got a brief meeting with Trump (without the entanglement of a White House photo ceremony) but you’d be a brave person to put money on the early completion of a bilateral FTA with the US.

Troubles at the World Trade Organisation, the most valuable piece of multilateral machinery in New Zealand’s eyes apart from the United Nations, are going to be very difficult to manage, let alone resolve. And India’s decision to walk away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) turned the long awaited completion of that agreement into a damp squib.

But New Zealand did get an upgrade to its vital FTA with China. This was the second signal that the relationship was now back on better terms, the first being Ardern’s brief visit to Beijing in April. Her government can now counter National’s line that the coalition has messed up New Zealand-China ties. And at the same time new ground has been broken for New Zealand’s human rights diplomacy with Wellington joining two dozen countries expressing concern to the UN Human Rights Council about China’s abuses in Xinjiang.

New Zealand's finalisation of a China FTA upgrade helped to rebut fears about the state of the bilateral relationship. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The coalition can also argue that it is closing off a controversial military deployment started by the Key government, with the announcement in June that New Zealand military personnel will leave Iraq in the middle of 2020. Defence Minister Ron Mark can also claim to have secured in record time a second major new capability, bypassing the normal tender process with the selection of the Super Hercules to replace the ancient C130s.

Given the revolving door of democratic politics, it might well be a National Party defence minister who has to explain in years to come that, thanks to Mr Mark’s expanding defence capability plan, there will be no like-for-like replacement for the Anzac frigates. But that might be payback for the coalition government's experience in 2019 of watching the Defence Force stumble over locating crucial documentation about Operation Burnham which occurred when National was in office.

It's unusual of course for foreign and defence policy issues to play a significant role in New Zealand's electoral politics. But in the 2020 election year, that rule might be tested.

After all, National have tried to wedge Ardern by pouring scorn on Peters' attitudes to Russia. Simon Bridges’ team is also well aware that on immigration, New Zealand First is far apart from Labour and the Greens.

But the affection was reciprocated. Peters was quick to join the chorus of disapproval over Mr Bridges’ love-in with the Communist Party of China. It will be unusual if Labour does not try to make electoral mileage from Ardern’s lofty international profile. And the Greens might work with Labour to question National’s credentials on climate change diplomacy.

In other words, as the new year starts we should all hold onto our hats: the world will not have got any better for New Zealand, but Kiwi voters might hear more about that world than they are used to.

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