As Nanaia Mahuta signals an end to Winston Peters’ pursuit of US intervention in the Pacific, Pete McKenzie argues she may try to establish New Zealand as an independent voice, capable of navigating global tensions by itself
The crowd of ambassadors and academics grew quiet as Winston Peters rose to speak. After a year as New Zealand’s de facto co-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, in late 2018 he was at the height of his power. Determined to capitalise on that influence, he had travelled nearly twenty thousand kilometres to Washington D.C’s Georgetown University – the heart of the American policy elite – to unveil a new vision of New Zealand foreign policy.
He didn’t mince words. “It is New Zealand’s view that the Asia-Pacific region has reached an inflexion point, one that requires the urgent attention of both Wellington and Washington. And that is why we are here.” Highlighting China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, Peters used his speech to “unashamedly ask for the United States to engage more”.
“I think he went a bit too far,” chuckled Rob Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at Te Herenga Waka —Victoria University of Wellington, when asked to reflect on Peters’ comments. “It was as if he thought the United States was going to come riding in like the cavalry, that the Trump Administration was going to save our bacon, which didn’t bear out.”
In recent weeks, Ayson’s academic world has been abuzz with chatter about a series of moves by Nanaia Mahuta, Peters’ successor as Foreign Minister. In interviews with Australian media and speeches to New Zealand’s diplomats, Mahuta has hinted towards her desire for a truly indigenous, independent foreign policy. But to understand the significance of this, you have to understand the past three years with Peters at the helm – a period in which New Zealand’s approach to the world generally, and to the great powers of China and America specifically, transformed.
In the waning decades of the twentieth century, New Zealand shook off its previously close partnership with the United States. Controversy over visits by American nuclear-capable ships led to the collapse of a military alliance between New Zealand and the United States; America announced that New Zealand would be treated as “a friend, but not an ally.” The relationship between the two countries entered a long period of cooling.
Meanwhile, New Zealand drew close to China. In the 1970s, the Third Labour government formally recognised the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, a change from New Zealand’s previous preference for the government-in-exile in Taiwan. In 1997, New Zealand was the first Western government to support China’s entrance to the World Trade Organisation, and in 2008 became the first developed country to sign a free trade deal with China. Successive governments focused on the economic opportunities China offered, often ignoring the humanitarian dilemmas and strategic risks which it posed.
After gaining power in 2017, Peters seemed determined to reverse both of these trends – an attitude which he revealed in his Georgetown speech. “The Georgetown speech was an important moment,” explained Nina Hall, an assistant professor of international relations at John Hopkins University. “He positioned New Zealand and the United States as close allies. And crucially, he positioned the United States as of the Pacific, not just a player in it.” Peters was attempting a return to the mid-twentieth century, when New Zealand was a paid-up member of the West and could shelter under America’s military umbrella.
Ayson believes this was partly driven by Peters’ deep sympathy for the United States. As Foreign Minister in the Clark government, even before the changing strategic picture in the Asia-Pacific had become clear, he was famous for his friendship with Condoleezza Rice – then the American Secretary of State – and his advocacy for alignment with America. As Ayson put it, “He reflects that pre-ANZUS crisis view of New Zealand as part of the Western alliance.”
But it was also driven by a keen appreciation of China’s rising power in the Asia-Pacific. As a strategist, said Ayson, Peters “was thinking about relationships of power and thinking in particular about the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and what that means for New Zealand… He was quite a prominent voice for the idea that New Zealand should be concerned about the changing balance in the South Pacific. He didn’t always say it directly, but what that meant was the changing power of China.” By aligning New Zealand more closely with America, that changing power could be addressed.
As a result of Peters’ harder line on China, worries which had been quietly circulating in New Zealand’s foreign policy community were suddenly elevated. “That was already starting to happen before the Ardern-Peters team arrived, but it accelerated afterwards,” said Ayson. “Officials found they had a government more willing to raise concerns than they’d had before.”
The government also took a series of independent actions to highlight the challenge China posed and to strengthen its own hand. Under the influence of Peters and Defence Minister Ron Mark, also a New Zealand First MP, the Ministry of Defence explicitly named China as a concern and described the threat to the international rules-based order which it posed. The ‘Pacific Reset’, which directed significant new resources and aid to Pacific partners, was intended to “better pool our energies and resources to maintain our relative influence” against growing Chinese power in the region, Peters has said. The government refused to allow Huawei, a Chinese company, to help upgrade the country’s 5G network due to security concerns. And it joined 22 other countries in expressing concern to the UN Human Rights Council over an apparent genocide perpetrated by China in the province of Xinjiang.
By 2020, the shift away from New Zealand’s foreign policy past had become clear. “This more robust language on China, with New Zealand taking a more obviously geopolitical view of the world – I think Peters took us further than would have been the case if Bill English had stayed on as Prime Minister after the 2017 election,” noted Ayson.
Peters’ foreign policy can be criticised on multiple fronts: he didn’t score a free trade deal between America and New Zealand; he was slow to criticise Russian misbehaviour; it remains unclear whether the ‘Pacific Reset’ has actually shifted New Zealand away from a donor-client aid approach to one of partnership with Pacific nations; and, significantly, Peters’ apparent desire to manipulate great power geopolitics by inviting American intervention in the Pacific remains controversial.
But even his critics concede that, despite these errors, Peters’ criticism of China and cultivation of America were at least informed by a clear vision of New Zealand’s place in the world, rather than the strategic drift which has occasionally characterised New Zealand foreign policy in the past. Ayson described Peters’ vision as being guided by a belief that “New Zealand’s interests still lie in a preponderance of Western power.”
Under Mahuta, some aspects of Peters’ foreign policy approach will remain. Peters’ willingness to push back more vocally on growing Chinese aggression and interference (although never so strongly as to jeopardize New Zealand’s economic interests) now appears to be baked into our diplomacy. As Mahuta noted in a recent interview with Australian media, “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… We have a maturing relationship and that means we are predictable and China understands the issues that we will stand apart on.”
But, having been elevated to the country’s top diplomatic role, Nanaia Mahuta is pushing back on other elements of Peters’ legacy. Crucially, in her first public moves in the role, she seems to be signalling an end to the overt pursuit of American intervention in the Pacific which characterised Peters’ time in office. In her Australian interview, she was emphatic that, “What I’m concerned about is that the Pacific not be used as a pawn in anybody else’s interests.” As Ayson observed in an article for Incline, the foreign policy of Winston Peters and his fellow NZ First ministers “was almost an invitation to enhanced great power competition (against China). Not being a ‘pawn in anybody else’s interests’ is a very different take on things.”
In other words, instead of seeking to manipulate great power geopolitics – as Peters did – Mahuta may try to establish New Zealand as an independent voice, capable of navigating global tensions by itself.
Even more profoundly, Mahuta may seek to refocus the foreign policy debate away from great power geopolitics altogether. In a recent speech at Waitangi, she made clear what her foreign policy priority will be: “It has previously been difficult to bring indigenous relationships to the fore. I believe the time has come to ensure a more inclusive approach to indigenous issues being a feature of foreign policy.” This appears to mean a redoubled focus on partnering with New Zealand’s smaller Pacific neighbours and acting on the issues which concern them, such as climate change.
Far from being guided by a desire for a “preponderance of Western power” in the Asia-Pacific, Mahuta is aiming to centre indigenous voices and actors. If she can elevate this from a plan to a reality, it will be the second major transformation in New Zealand’s foreign policy in just half a decade.