Nanaia Mahuta may have given us the best guide yet to how she is approaching the central question for New Zealand’s foreign policy – dealing with the rise of China, says Robert Ayson. Photo: Getty Images

You won’t find it on her twitter feed alongside messages of welcome to Anthony Blinken, the newly confirmed US Secretary of State. You won’t find it on the Beehive site somewhere near the Foreign Minister’s statement on the Myanmar coup.  Nor will you locate it on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But at the end of last week Nanaia Mahuta gave a television interview in Australia which could be the best guide yet to how she is approaching the central question for New Zealand’s foreign policy – dealing with the rise of China.

The brief but significant exchange on this thorny question may have been overlooked by media on the eastern side of Tasman: the interview began with yet another discussion of New Zealand’s approach to Covid-19. But Mahuta’s main role that evening was to set out the Ardern government’s position on a very different problem: Trade Minister Damien O’Connor’s all-too newsworthy assertion that Australia could improve its relationship with China by following New Zealand’s example and showing some more respect to Beijing. Mahuta’s response (at around the 5 minute mark) was unequivocal: “in terms of the China-Australia relationship,” she told the ABC interviewer, “that is not really something we can or should comment on. That is a matter for Australia and China to work through.” Mr O’Connor, that’s your bus coming, isn’t it?

The main job was done at this point. The boil had been lanced. Yet in the Foreign Minister’s responses to other questions we can find deeper insights about Wellington’s view of China, and the extent to which New Zealand will work with others in dealing with the more challenging aspects of China’s rise. One of these questions enquired as to whether the Minister was concerned about “China’s growing assertiveness in the region?” Mahuta’s answer deserves recounting in some detail.

“China is one of the big countries that have a significant influence worldwide, as is the US. So we are a small country at the bottom of the Pacific mindful of our size and our ability to use our voice in areas where there is common interest among other communities with the same values as ours. We continue to express the issues of concern in relations to countries like China and we continue to find a way where we may be able to work together…China has made some significant gains in the arena of climate change. We’ve been able to sign the upgrade of our free trade agreement. We have a maturing relationship and that means we are predictable and China understands the issues that we will stand apart on.”

Some of this is familiar stuff – the Minister focuses on the same two aspects of cooperation with China that Jacinda Ardern had highlighted in an early 2017 foreign policy speech: climate change and trade. But the fact that this reiteration occurs signals that New Zealand sees room for a China relationship, and does not see Beijing as an adversary on all sides. At the same time, in the continuing balancing act which is New Zealand’s China policy, Mahuta implies that New Zealand will work with like-minded partners (including fellow democracies) to raise concerns about the unwelcome things that China does. But New Zealand is in no hurry to pile in on any such occasion – the “maturing relationship” with Beijing she invokes means that differences will be expressed but on a no surprises basis.

There is also the point that the United States is a big power too. Perhaps it’s not just great power China that small Pacific countries might need to be careful about. I am at risk of reading too much into Mahuta’s every word, but her answer to the question which concluded the interview also deserves our attention in this connection. Was she concerned about China’s Belt and Road initiative as it applied to the South Pacific? Once again, please forgive an at-length quote:

“What I’m concerned about is that the Pacific not be used in a pawn in anybody else’s interests. The Pacific has as challenge of its own during this time and it’s important that those who are interested in the resilience of the Pacific that we continue to work alongside them as partners and that we continue to acknowledge actually that in this Covid context there are significant challenges right now that must be observed in terms of the vaccination roll-out, the health and wellbeing of their population. But long term it’s actually the impact of climate change and how that will irreversibly impact on the quality of life across the Pacific going forward.”

The implications of this view are significant when we consider the approach taken by the first term Ardern government. In 2019 (then) Defence Minister Ron Mark launched a strategic assessment which incorporated New Zealand’s South Pacific interests in an Indo-Pacific framework. This was almost an invitation to enhance great power competition (against China). Not being a “pawn in anybody else’s interests” is a very different take on things.

Over two years beforehand, soon after returning to the Foreign Affairs portfolio, Winston Peters gave a Sydney audience some very big hints that in the Pacific his main concern was China’s growing influence, for which he needed Australia’s support. He would later double down on that line (this time requesting Washington’s help) when visiting the United States. But Mahuta doesn’t want the old ANZUS cavalry for the Pacific. It’s not about the balance of power. Right now it’s all about vaccinations for Covid. And then it will be back to climate change.

That’s a notable message on which to finish an Australian interview. After all, the biggest problem the Morrison government has in the Pacific is a poor reputation on climate change. And it confirms that New Zealand can still send messages to close partners about how they conduct their relations with others. Governments have been doing so since time immemorial. But they have to find a plausibly deniable and less self-congratulatory way of doing so.

It’s too ambitious to treat a few minutes on Australian television as the substance of a foreign policy doctrine. But if we hear more of the same from Nanaia Mahuta, we’ll have reason to think that she is heading on that path. And it is one that departs from some of the geopolitical assumptions that appealed to her predecessors.

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