After weeks spent looking inwards to win New Zealanders’ votes, Jacinda Ardern and her Government now have to ready themselves for the challenges of the outside world, Sam Sachdeva writes

To say that foreign policy does not generally swing the outcome of New Zealand elections is putting it mildly.

Labour’s historic majority was unaffected by an extraordinarily bland foreign affairs section in its (late-arriving) campaign manifesto, offering anodyne commitments like “continu[ing] to promote and develop strong multilateral links between Aotearoa and our international community”.

That is understandable: after all, voters often focus on matters closer to home at the best of times, an approach only heightened by the figurative shrinking of the globe thanks to Covid-19.

But in other respects, the pandemic has heightened both the scale of international challenges facing New Zealand and the need for multilateral cooperation.

With New Zealand First’s departure from Parliament, the foreign affairs and defence portfolios must both be filled, with the successors to Winston Peters and Ron Mark having little time to get on top of their briefings before the world starts rushing towards them.

Here are just some of the big foreign policy issues Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government is likely to face in its second term:

The ‘Great Powers’

Navigating the US-China relationship is not a new problem, but the rivalry – and its flow-on effects for New Zealand – are likely to remain at front of mind over the next three years.

Exactly who will be guiding American foreign policy in the coming years is still up in the air: Democratic candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden is the overwhelming favourite to unseat Republican incumbent Donald Trump on November 3, but the memories of 2016 are all too recent to put too much faith in the polls.

Writing for Australia’s United States Studies Centre, US foreign policy expert Charles Edel suggests a second Trump term would lead to a president “more unilateral in his actions and less constrained in his impulses”, while a Biden administration would “work to place allies and partners at the centre of US foreign policy”.

The latter would clearly be more favourable towards Ardern’s Government – but Edel does note that regardless of who is in office, it is safe to expect a continuation of a harder-edged approach towards China.

And while Trump is probably headed out the door, he’s still causing New Zealand headaches: his nomination of Kiwi businessman Chris Liddell to head up the OECD has put our Government in a difficult spot, with National saying we should back a local lad and the Greens pointing to the track record of Liddell’s boss in opposing his candidacy.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have overseen a growth in Great Power rivalry that threatens countries like New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

On the other side of the rivalry, China’s reputation has suffered somewhat from the global community’s view of how it has handled the coronavirus pandemic, while it still remains under scrutiny by New Zealand and other nations for human rights abuses in its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as its approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

A much-delayed upgrade of the NZ-China FTA was finally agreed in substance late last year – but it remains unsigned almost a year on, apparently due to the unwillingness of Beijing to opt for a “digital” signing.

At a press conference following the election result, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “a sound and stable China-New Zealand relationship serves the fundamental interests of both”.

But the stability of that relationship may come into question as the US and China both push for influence.


In its first term, Ardern’s government oversaw the completion of the 11-nation CPTPP trade deal, albeit without the United States on board, along with the previously mentioned China FTA upgrade.

The two main trade priorities for its second term are somewhat further afield, and are not without their fair share of difficulties.

FTA negotiations with the European Union – probably the biggest prize on offer – have hit a number of obstacles, with Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker lashing out in June at the EU’s “paltry” offer for Kiwi agricultural exporters.

Parker’s remarks did not seem to spark any sudden change of heart from the Europeans, with no movement in the eighth round of talks later that month (although another round is expected before the end of 2020).

Kiwi trade officials have asked exporters to remain patient and noted there is a certain level of gamesmanship to be expected from the EU on market access, but trepidation – or frustration – is certainly understandable amongst both businesses and ministers.

The Government could turn its efforts to free trade talks with the United Kingdom. Negotiations began in July and a second round started on October 19.

But the UK has EU problems of its own, facing legal action over proposed legislation which would undercut the withdrawal agreement between the two sides and breach international law.

The ramifications of that fallout, and the outcome of ongoing UK-EU trade talks, could have flow-on effects for how much either side is willing to give New Zealand.

The Pacific

At first glance, the Pacific would seem to have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic relatively well.

Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu are among the few nations to have avoided even a single case of the virus, while the Cook Islands is now Covid-free and has been pushing hard for a travel bubble with New Zealand.

But that doesn’t account for the “unprecedented” economic pain that many Pacific nations are going through as a result of border closures and internal restrictions, particularly for those heavily reliant on tourism.

The Government announced a $55.6 million boost for aid funding in May’s Budget, but will face pressure to put more into the Pacific to avoid further costs – both economic and human – down the line.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, aid agencies and community organisations from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific urged their governments to boost aid funding for the region to better deal with the effect of Covid lockdowns.

“Without sufficient increases to international development expenditure, the progress and the key indicators of life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and income across the region will be lost.”

A Cabinet paper from June outlining New Zealand’s foreign policy plan put it even more bluntly: “The Pacific will face serious challenges as a result of the pandemic even if it manages to keep Covid-19 at bay. New Zealand will need to do more.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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