Nanaia Mahuta’s words matter – but is there more than meets the eye?

New Zealand’s foreign minister is ruffling feathers. International analyst Geoffrey Miller explores Nanaia Mahuta’s orientation to her job, Beijing, and Belarus.

Nanaia Mahuta’s comments on China in a Guardian interview this week brought a veiled rebuke from Beijing – and a new wave of international headlines. It was a fresh reminder that the foreign minister’s words are being closely watched – and not just by China itself.

Mahuta is undoubtedly ruffling feathers. But if what appears to be her underlying strategy succeeds – moving Wellington back towards Beijing, while doing just enough to keep traditional Western allies on board – then she might just have created a new diplomatic model for others to follow.

There are other reasons why interest in Mahuta is high – starting with the minister herself. While she is not New Zealand’s first Māori foreign minister – this was in fact Winston Peters – Mahuta openly integrates and expresses her indigeneity to international audiences in a way that her predecessor did not.

This is perhaps most obvious on Twitter, where the minister nearly always refers to her country as “Aotearoa New Zealand”. Mahuta also likes to use Māori hashtags: last week, she again used a particular favourite, “#mahitahi” (or “working together”), after an online meeting with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell about free trade negotiations.

In part, the attention being received by Mahuta is also a by-product of the elevated global level of interest in New Zealand generally. Much of this stems from Jacinda Ardern’s own personal international popularity, which grew rapidly as a result of New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 and the Christchurch mosque attacks.

The fact that Mahuta has more time to dedicate to the foreign affairs portfolio also helps. While she is also the local government minister, a Democracy Project analysis of Mahuta’s statements and tweets last month showed that they focus heavily on foreign affairs. By contrast, the deputy PM and party leadership roles held by Winston Peters, on top of his job as foreign minister, invariably saw him place a greater emphasis on domestic matters and campaigning.

While the China issue has dominated most of Mahuta’s interviews, the analysis found that the Minister’s tweets and public statements are much more wide-ranging. In particular, Twitter has been the only source of public comment by the minister on many issues, including the arrest of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and the ongoing post-election crisis in Belarus.

Mahuta’s first public response on Belarus – a crisis that began with post-election protests last August – came on Monday, when she tweeted her response to the forced landing of a Ryanair jet in Minsk. Mahuta wrote that the plane incident and the detention of dissident Roman Protasevich ‘raise[d] serious issues of international law’ and called for a ‘full investigation’.

The Minister’s response to the Belarus crisis was interesting for several reasons. At first blush the comments appeared notably softer than ones made by other Five Eyes partners. These included a tweet earlier the same day from Mahuta’s Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, who had used the much harsher phrase of “strongly condemns”.

Second, it seemed curious that the tweet was not accompanied by any stronger action. Nine months after Lukashenko’s regime had begun its crackdown, New Zealand had still not announced any sanctions on Belarus. This apparent reluctance not only contrasted starkly with New Zealand’s estern Western partners, it also stood out compared to Mahuta’s own swift actions taken against Myanmar after the military coup there in February, for example.

Was this part of any larger New Zealand plan to avoid upsetting Belarus’s main ally, Russia? Or was it simply that Belarus was perceived to be a distant conflict, with a lack of direct relevance to New Zealand? This position might be plausible – especially given the escalation around the same time of a post-election crisis in much closer-to-home Samoa.

The truth turned out to be even more curious. In response to written questions, Mahuta’s spokesperson explained that Cabinet had in fact agreed to impose a travel ban on “specific individuals associated with the Alexander Lukashenko regime”. Moreover, Mahuta’s office revealed that New Zealand had also suspended all “high-level bilateral, political and military contact’ with Belarus.

Neither decision appears to have been officially announced. Perhaps they still will be at a later date. But another possibility is that Mahuta realised that with New Zealand having virtually no official contact with Belarus in the first place, the punishments were so symbolic that they bordered on being meaningless.

Broader economic sanctions might have more of an impact – with trade being the one area where New Zealand’s relationship with Belarus is far more significant than most people realise. Each year, New Zealand – or more specifically, the farmer-owned co-operative Ravensdown – purchases millions of dollars of potash fertilizer from state-owned Belarusian company Belaruskali.

In fact, proceeds from potash exports are so important to the regime that the EU this week announced it was evaluating potential sanctions. Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn was quoted by Reuters as saying “the keyword is potash… I think it would hurt Lukashenko very much if we managed something in this area”.

However, no such imminent risk to Belarusian potash exports to New Zealand exists. The reason is that New Zealand – unlike its Five Eyes partners – has no domestic sanctions regime. As such, New Zealand can impose wider sanctions only when these have been agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). With UNSC sanctions being able to be blocked by any of the five permanent members, including Russia or China, only a small number of countries – mainly in Africa – make the cut.

Without the ability to impose its own sanctions, New Zealand can currently only impose much smaller and more symbolic penalties, such as travel bans. Why does New Zealand remain an outlier? Not having a sanctions regime – especially a Magnitsky-style system that would target human rights abusers – is one way of avoiding any vexing questions about imposing them. After all, the most recent high-profile target of economic sanctions by New Zealand’s Western partners wasn’t Belarus at all. It was China.

Geoffrey Miller is an international analyst at the Democracy Project. He has lived and travelled extensively in the Middle East and is a fluent Arabic speaker.

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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