Is Jacinda Ardern rethinking her China strategy?

Is New Zealand suddenly softening its more pro-Western foreign policy – and its tougher line on China?

After months of inching towards the West, Jacinda Ardern’s set-piece speeches on her Europe trip last week seem to have been crafted to try and keep observers guessing.

At the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid, the New Zealand Prime Minister gave a speech that – in tone at least – seemed designed to evoke memories of the direction that her Labour predecessor David Lange had taken in the 1980s.

Lange built his foreign policy on the trinity of Labour’s nuclear-free policy of 1984, France’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985 and the US’s formal suspension of its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS Treaty in 1986.

At the outset of her three-minute speech to NATO leaders in Spain, Ardern said ‘New Zealand is not here to expand our military alliances. We are here to contribute to a world that lessens the need for anyone to call on them’.

The remarks vaguely recalled the fiery tone taken by Lange when New Zealand’s role with NATO came up at the Oxford Union debate in 1985: ‘This country, New Zealand, is not going to contribute to a nuclear alliance. This country, New Zealand, never has’.

Ardern followed up on her opening remarks by pointing to New Zealand’s ‘fiercely held independent foreign policy’ that she said should not be judged against ‘political ideology’.

The Prime Minister also rebuffed the idea that Russia’s war should be seen as a ‘as a war of the West vs Russia, or even democracy vs autocracy’.

This particular line was surprising, given that it could easily be interpreted as a rebuke of US President Joe Biden.

After all, the US President made ‘the battle between democracy and autocracies’ a theme of his State of the Union and Warsaw speeches in March. He has also used similar framing elsewhere, such as when he organised the inaugural ‘Summit for Democracy’ last December, which Ardern herself attended.

Ardern’s pledge not to join a military alliance might seem like a significant concession to China, which tends to see the rise of new Western-led groupings in the Indo-Pacific as plots against it.

Of course, plenty of wriggle room remains on that front. Even if New Zealand were to join either of the two most hawkish groups – AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) or the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) – it would technically not be signing up to a formal defence alliance.

Ardern also seemed to take a softer approach when she spoke to Chatham House in London on Friday. Her prepared speech did include relatively mild criticism of China – which she called ‘assertive’ – but she managed to avoid mentioning China by name entirely during the much longer 40-minute Q&A session that followed.

This wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of her questioners: Ardern was quizzed twice on the rather sensitive matter of how New Zealand would respond if China invaded Taiwan.

In her answers, Ardern largely talked around the issue and generally preferred to bring the discussion back to Russia and Ukraine itself – far safer ground. Noting that she would be ‘loath to assume any particular trajectory’, she also deployed the strategic soundbites of ‘diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy’ and ‘dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’.

Did New Zealand effectively blink last week and return to its old, pre-Ukraine hedging strategy of satisfying the West one week – and China the next?

Time will tell, but Beijing will be far more interested in Ardern’s actions than her rhetoric.

After all, Ardern was invited to attend last week’s Madrid summit precisely because the alliance wanted Asia-Pacific countries standing alongside it when NATO called out China in its new ‘Strategic Concept’.

To that end, NATO’s new blueprint did not mince words. The line of ‘China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’ served as just the opener for several paragraphs of very specific and pointed critique of Beijing’s military, nuclear and economic policies.

And as if to underline New Zealand’s true stance, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta released a statement on Friday – while Ardern was still in Europe – that called out China for ‘continued erosion of rights, freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong’.

Moreover, the many and varied steps that New Zealand has taken this year to align itself more closely with the West remain.  Ardern’s foreign policy U-turn in March that saw New Zealand impose sanctions on Russia has been followed by the Prime Minister choosing to visit countries that are also clearly in the Western camp: Australia, Belgium, Japan, Singapore, Spain and the United States.

In its relations with the US, New Zealand has joined Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and – even more significantly – the new Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative. The latter group – made up of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the US – pledges to co-operate for ‘prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific’ and seems squarely aimed at countering China in the region.

In fact, as Richard Harman points out, the PBP is of such a delicate nature that Wellington has almost pretended it does not exist: a White House statement remains the only official announcement of New Zealand’s involvement.

The Partners in the Blue Pacific announcement came a month after Jacinda Ardern visited Joe Biden in the White House at the end of May, a key outcome of which was Wellington’s joint statement with Washington that itemised a long list of typical US complaints about China.

On the Pacific, Ardern has sided with the Western position that essentially seeks to keep China out of the region. In April, she said there was ‘no need’ for Solomon Islands to sign a security deal with China. Citing the Pacific Islands Forum’s Biketawa Declaration – a mutual regional support pledge signed after the Fiji coup in 2000 – Ardern expressed the view that the arrangement between Beijing and Honiara crossed a ‘very clear line’.

Since then, Ardern has also been careful to show unity with Canberra by repeating Australian lines of ‘our backyard’ and ‘Pacific family’ to describe New Zealand’s own relationship with the Pacific.

More broadly, the Prime Minister and her foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, have talked up the role of the Pacific Islands Forum – which Ardern described at Chatham House as ‘the place for discussing and determining regional security needs’.

Later this week, Nanaia Mahuta is scheduled to attend the Forum’s foreign ministers’ meeting in Fiji, which will be followed by Ardern’s participation in the leaders’ summit next week.

Effectively, the Pacific Islands Forum will be the West’s chance to make a counter offer to China’s multilateral ambitions for the region that foreign minister Wang Yi unveiled on his tour of the Pacific in May.

New Zealand’s Pacific-focused, post-Ukraine tilt towards the West might now seem locked in: China’s security deal with Solomon Islands that was first leaked in March and its subsequent even grander plans for the region arguably forced Wellington’s hand.

But that does not mean there is no room, or no time, or no reason for a major rethink.

Last week’s mediocre free trade deal with the EU – which gave New Zealand only minor gains in the crucial meat and dairy sectors that make up 40 percent of its exports – only underlined the simple fact that New Zealand needs China more than ever.

The EU and the US are unwilling – or unable – to put their money where their mouths are.

They are failing to match their rhetoric of solidarity with the kinds of high-quality trade deals that New Zealand would need as any kind of China substitute.

By contrast, China remains a willing and able buyer of a massive 33 per cent of New Zealand’s exports, especially of the butter, cheese and beef that the EU would rather exclude from the bloc on protectionist grounds.

For the foreseeable future, China will remain New Zealand’s biggest trading partner – by far.

There is no Plan B.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related international issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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