Nanaia Mahuta’s latest foreign policy speech was light on truly new diplomatic insights, but did give a sense of the pressure being felt by the Government around Aukus discussions and the fate of the Pacific
Comment: After two years as a foreign minister hobbled by the impact of Covid-19 border closures and the burden of leading Three Waters reforms, Nanaia Mahuta is swiftly making up for lost time.
Opening her remarks to the diplomatic corps gathered at Parliament on Wednesday, Mahuta acknowledged the presence of her colleague and trade minister Damien O’Connor with a quip that the pair “might be neck and neck as to who’s travelling most around the world”.
The speech was an opportunity for the foreign affairs minister, who has visited nine countries already this year, to set out her view of the state of the world and New Zealand’s place within it.
Yet anyone hoping to walk away with new insights into the Government’s foreign policy under the rule of Chris Hipkins – at a time of unusually heated debate about the decisions being made by New Zealand – may have been disappointed.
Mahuta’s remarks amounted to a greatest hits tour for the most part, with echoes of previous references to a “mature relationship” with China that allowed for disagreements, as well as the importance of the rules-based international order and the Pacific worldview.
Repetition can of course be useful, and the need to uphold global norms is no less pressing given Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
But it was hard to get a sense of what the minister had learned on her recent travels, given that large chunks of the speech could arguably have been delivered in the last term of government.
In some ways, the most noteworthy elements of Mahuta’s comments were what didn’t merit a mention, rather than what did.
In one section, she called out specific nations in the Indo-Pacific for their breaches of international laws and norms: “Democratic norms and universal human rights are being trampled by the military regime in Myanmar. North Korea’s repeated missile launches in breach of UN Security Council Resolutions present a serious threat to regional stability.”
Yet that connection between action and actor was conspicuously absent in the sentence that immediately followed. “Developments in the South China Sea and increasing tension in the Taiwan Strait continue to be of concern,” Mahuta said, without explicitly saying who was responsible for those developments and tensions.
The absence of Aukus
The Aukus security pact also failed to rate a single mention, despite clear divisions within New Zealand and around the Indo-Pacific over whether it is a necessary initiative to counter China’s military buildup or a needless move to lead the region towards war.
After Defence Minister Andrew Little indicated in March that New Zealand was “willing to explore” talks about participating in the deal’s non-nuclear elements, the swift backpedalling from the wider Cabinet has highlighted the sensitivity of the topic.
Asked on Monday about the scope of those discussions, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins brushed off questions as “purely hypothetical” – a curious claim, given there have clearly been discussions at an official level.
But if Little and Mahuta have recently seemed to diverge in their views on the merits of Aukus discussions, the foreign minister borrowed from her colleague’s rhetoric in nodding to the debate about whether New Zealand could join the pact while maintaining an independent foreign policy.
“Independence should not be confused with isolation, neutrality, or a fixed pre-determination of how we will act on a particular issue,” Mahuta said. Instead, it was “about making our own determination about which tools of statecraft are the right fit for our national circumstances, and how these are applied to the situation at hand”.
That seems a sign the Government will not simply sit out from difficult debates about China’s role in the world order, while also not walking in lockstep with the United States and other ‘like-minded’ partners.
More meaningful statements could come later this year, with an expedited defence policy review set for release in the coming months and an assessment of the Government’s diplomatic tools to punish human rights abusers also due for completion
Also striking was the argument that the Pacific should not end up as a “footnote” in discussions about the Indo-Pacific, with Pacific regional architecture needing to be better understood and central to talks.
It is a message that will be welcomed by New Zealand’s Pacific partners, although it remains to be seen how firmly the Government’s focus remains on the immediate neighbourhood given competing demands further afield.
More meaningful statements could come later this year, with an expedited defence policy review set for release in the coming months and an assessment of the Government’s diplomatic tools to punish human rights abusers also due for completion.
A brief reference by Mahuta to “investing in and maintaining effective sovereign capabilities” has been interpreted by some as a nod to increased foreign affairs and defence funding, although whether the finance minister can find the necessary funds is another matter.
But her concluding remarks, that the world is changing and New Zealand will need to change in turn, show this is a struggle with little chance of receding in the near future.
Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom’s national affairs editor and author of The China Tightrope, an upcoming book about the changing NZ-China relationship to be published on May 30 by Allen & Unwin. The book can be pre-ordered at Whitcoulls, Paper Plus and Good Books, or from your local bookstore.