Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says her deputy and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, did not show her the speech he gave last weekend in Washington DC where he appeared to shift New Zealand’s positioning in the Pacific region more towards support for the United States and away from China.
Speaking at her last post-Cabinet press conference for the year, Ardern pushed back at the suggestion she might have expected to see a speech relating to the government’s flagship “Pacific reset” foreign policy being given in the capital city of its most significant military partner, the US, which also bore directly on its relationship with the country’s largest trading partner, China.
The US and China are locked in an increasingly tense trade war and Peters’ speech follows a series of events that all point to a cooling in the relationship with Beijing.
These include, in recent months: a defence strategy paper in which New Zealand explicitly criticised China’s expansionism in the South China Sea for the first time; the announcement of a multi-billion dollar upgrade of air force surveillance capability to planes that could carry anti-submarine weaponry; a preliminary refusal to allow Chinese-owned Huawei to participate in the country’s 5-G mobile network rollout; and an on-again, off-again first prime ministerial visit to Beijing.
The official visit was to have taken place last week but was postponed, with both sides citing diary clashes.
Today, Ardern said she had heard no more about dates for what is starting to look like a delayed state visit to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping in China.
In last Saturday’s speech at the Georgetown University Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies, Peters sought to “enlist greater US support in the region” as New Zealand expressed concerns about the extent to which the Pacific region is “becoming more contested and its security is ever more fragile”.
“Our co-operation and like-mindedness is now coming into sharper relief in the Asia-Pacific,” said Peters. “We unashamedly ask the United States to engage more and we think it is in your vital interests to do so. And time is of the essence.”
New Zealand was “acutely mindful of and archly concerned by the asymmetries at play in the region at a time when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific with an attendant level of strategic competition”.
“The speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us. Our eyes are wide open to this trajectory and we know that yours are too.”
Ardern sought to suggest that Peters’s comments could just as well have referred to the interests of other Great Powers that have interests in the Pacific.
“It’s not only of the US that we believe there’ll be an interest in different regions (sic), including the Pacific. Of course, France has an interest. The UK may take a different approach to foreign policy post-Brexit. These are conversations that I think are worth having with those with whom we’ve shared in the past similar values and directions when it comes to foreign policy,” she said.
Asked whether the speech indicated New Zealand was adopting a more pro-US stance and a less enthusiastic stance towards China, she gave an emphatic denial: “No. Absolutely not.”
“This is not a bidding war,” she said. “This is all about making sure that where there are shared values and projects that we partner those who are able to deliver in the best interests of our region.”