The National-led coalition government is off to a fast start internationally. In envisioning a more central role for the ANZAC alliance with Australia, and possible involvement in the AUKUS security pact, it is recalibrating New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.
At the inaugural Australia-New Zealand Foreign and Defense Ministerial (ANZMIN) meeting in Melbourne earlier this year, the focus was on future-proofing the trans-Tasman alliance.
Detailed discussions took place on the defense and security aspects of the relationship. This included global strategic issues, the Indo-Pacific region, and the relevance of the partnership in the Pacific.
But the stage for this shift in New Zealand’s independent foreign policy had already been set by the Labour government in 2023.
In his foreword to the country’s first National Security Strategy last year, then-prime minister Chris Hipkins wrote that New Zealand “faces a fundamentally more challenging security outlook.” The strategy document called for a “national conversation on foreign policy.”
Christopher Luxon’s administration is taking the logical next step by increasing cooperation with Canberra.
In or out of AUKUS?
New Zealand’s independent foreign policy emerged in the mid-1980s from the debris of the ANZUS alliance. It flourished in a historically rare era of muted great power rivalry and unprecedented economic globalization.
It is abundantly clear that our holiday from history is over.
New Zealand’s independent foreign policy has to be redefined in response to present strategic circumstances rather than past interpretations, however well they may have served us. These historic positions, recently put forward by former National leader Don Brash and former prime minister Helen Clark, have run their course.
At the sharp end of this recalibration is AUKUS, the technology partnership involving Australia, the UK and the US. New Zealand has expressed an interest in participating in “pillar two” of the agreement, involving non-nuclear technology sharing.
A joint statement released after the ANZMIN consultations stated that AUKUS was discussed as “a positive contribution toward maintaining peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”
The Chinese embassy in Wellington has expressed “serious concerns.” It called AUKUS:
a stark manifestation of Cold War mentality [which] will undermine peace and stability, sow division and confrontation in the region, and thus runs against the common interests of regional countries pursuing peace, stability, and common security.
Few neutral observers will be persuaded by Beijing’s characterization.
AUKUS emerged in 2021, initiated in Canberra as a response to economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Australia by China in 2020.
New Zealand’s participation will invariably strengthen the ANZAC alliance. It is hard to see how non-involvement will not weaken that alliance.
This is something the Labour opposition will need to consider carefully. Having asked for a national foreign policy conversation while in government, it is now signaling disquiet over AUKUS membership.
Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson David Parker said recently that “we’re questioning [AUKUS’] utility and whether it is wise.” His associate spokesperson Phil Twyford told parliament AUKUS is an “offensive war-fighting alliance against China.”
It is unclear how this position is consistent with Labour’s progressively stronger support for the ANZAC alliance and AUKUS since 2021, and its earlier willingness to explore participating in pillar two.
The future of independent foreign policy
Truth be told, the Luxon administration’s interest in AUKUS is a consequence of China serving as the architect of its own strategic problems.
Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, China enjoyed a generally positive relationship with a range of countries across Asia and the Pacific.
Since then, China’s relations with numerous regional states have deteriorated, in no small part due to actions initiated by Beijing in the South China Sea and East China Sea, its contested border with India, and sanctions on Australia and South Korea for disagreements over Chinese foreign policy decisions.
New Zealand is committed to advancing its interests in a way that contributes to regional stability in what the ANZMIN joint statement described as “the most challenging strategic environment in decades.”
If New Zealand’s elected government determines that AUKUS is in the national interest, then it must seek the broadest consensus possible domestically. It also needs to unapologetically pursue that path internationally.
That is the essence of Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ response when asked whether Wellington’s interest in AUKUS would negatively affect relations with China:
China is a country that practises something I have got a lot of time for – they practice their national interest […] and that’s what we’re doing.
We are entering a new era for New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, one that includes a rebooted ANZAC alliance, with a possible AUKUS dimension.