Why Chris Hipkins is heading to Brisbane – not Beijing
This weekend’s visit to Australia by New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaks volumes about major changes underway in New Zealand foreign policy.
Hipkins is flying to Brisbane – Australia’s third-biggest city and home to around 100,000 New Zealand citizens – to meet with his counterpart, Anthony Albanese.
The trip’s significance comes in part from its timing. Hipkins is visiting just before Anzac Day on 25 April. On this day each year, Australia and New Zealand both remember the role played and losses suffered by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (or Anzac for short) in World War I, and by their forces in other conflicts.
In advance of the New Zealand PM’s travel, a new partnership called ‘Plan Anzac’ has been unveiled which promises ‘sustained cooperation’ between the Australian and New Zealand militaries. The arrangement covers a wide range of areas that include ‘strategic engagement, capability, training, readiness and common personnel issues’.
Hipkins’ visit is also expected to serve as an occasion for Australia to unveil a more generous pathway to citizenship for the near million-strong population of New Zealanders living in Australia – an attempt at putting to bed disquiet from New Zealanders who feel Australia has not upheld traditional Anzac ‘mateship’.
There is no better time of year for Canberra and Wellington to send signals of unity.
And the bonhomie comes as New Zealand increasingly follows in Australia’s foreign policy footsteps.
The most recent example of the alignment came in the acceptance by both Albanese and Hipkins of an invitation to the NATO leaders’ summit in Lithuania this July.
The joint RSVP was almost certainly coordinated between Canberra and Wellington.
After NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg publicly invited the pair to attend the meeting a fortnight ago, Hipkins initially remained non-committal, telling reporters he hadn’t decided on whether he would attend and pointedly noting his busy schedule during New Zealand’s election year.
Media reports surfaced soon afterwards that claimed Albanese would be a no-show in Vilnius.
The reporting was not initially denied.
Albanese already has a packed international calendar this year. The Australian PM perhaps thought that his guest attendance at the G7 in Hiroshima and hosting of a Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) leaders’ summit in Sydney next month would be more than enough to satisfy US and European leaders.
If Albanese himself was planning on skipping NATO, this also explained why Hipkins showed a marked lack of enthusiasm.
But criticism by political rivals and commentators – and perhaps some pressure behind the scenes – appeared to change Albanese’s mind and by Monday this week, the Australian leader was saying he ‘would be very pleased to accept’ the NATO invitation.
Yesterday, Hipkins announced that he would also be heading to Vilnius.
In other words, Australia led – and New Zealand followed.
The countries are also becoming closer in other ways.
Most notably, New Zealand defence minister Andrew Little signalled last month that Wellington was interested in joining a second ‘pillar’ of the AUKUS arrangements that focuses on cybertechnology.
A week later, Little held talks in Wellington with his Australian counterpart, Richard Marles.
Little was typically circumspect about the substance of the talks and played down the AUKUS element.
However, Marles noted ‘alignment’ between Australia and New Zealand, adding ‘it’s really important that we are working as closely together as possible’.
The pair’s meeting came not long after a visit to New Zealand by Kurt Campbell, the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator – illustrating how pressures and interests from further afield are also at play, a factor reinforced by the NATO invitation.
Then there is the small matter of TikTok.
Both Australia and New Zealand have issued bans over the past month – and surprisingly, this time New Zealand appeared to be the leader, not the follower.
In March, New Zealand’s Parliamentary Service effectively banned use of the smartphone app, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, by MPs and staffers who accessed Parliament’s network.
The move followed a directive (issued in November 2022, although only publicly revealed months later) by New Zealand’s Defence Force ordering its personnel to delete TikTok from their devices.
For its part, Australia waited until earlier this month to make its decision– but it then issued a far more sweeping ban that prohibited the use of TikTok on devices used by employees at all Australian federal government departments and agencies.
It was also reported that more than half of Australia’s federal government agencies had already banned TikTok.
This suggested Australia was the leader after all.
If alignment is a keyword in the 2023 version of the Australia-New Zealand relationship, another is ‘interoperability’.
Little spoke of the need for a ‘seamless sort of interoperability’ with Australia after taking on the defence portfolio earlier this year – and the word is also used repeatedly to justify the new ‘Plan Anzac’ military partnership.
Expect to hear more about the need for New Zealand to harmonise its capabilities with those of Australia – especially when the results of New Zealand’s Defence Policy Review are soon announced.
The outcome of the Defence Policy Review is also likely to serve as a justification for New Zealand to announce greater military spending.
It remains to be seen how China will react to New Zealand’s increasing willingness to fall in line with Australia – and with NATO.
Trade repercussions seem unlikely, although cannot be ruled out if New Zealand becomes deeply intertwined with Aukus.
China and Australia are currently in a healing phase over trade, after Beijing effectively offered to settle a dispute with Canberra over the tariffs China imposed in 2020 on Australia’s barley exports.
In the short term, any displeasure from China at New Zealand’s decision to take a more Australia-friendly path is more likely to come in the form of ‘playing hard to get’.
A notable omission from Hipkins’ travel announcements this week was any confirmation of a trip to China.
In her final months in office, Jacinda Ardern indicated she was seeking to visit China early in 2023 – a plan that Hipkins initially reaffirmed, but later walked back.
In the announcement of Chris Hipkins’ travel plans this week, the Prime Minister’s office did add that the Government was ‘continuing to pursue a trade focused trip to China later in the year’.
But for Hipkins to visit China, he will need an invitation.
And that invitation may have just become that much harder to obtain.
After all, Chris Hipkins is choosing Brisbane over Beijing.
At least for now.
Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian. He is currently working on a PhD on New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states.
This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.