A carefully worded speech on NZ-China relations from Nanaia Mahuta nevertheless carried some telling notes about how the Government plans to navigate the Great Power divide, Sam Sachdeva writes

Nanaia Mahuta may lack the bombast of Winston Peters, but her greater willingness to stick to the MFAT-approved script makes it easier to get a read on New Zealand’s foreign policy positions.

That put added emphasis on her speech to the New Zealand China Council – arguably the most significant address she has made since her appointment as Foreign Affairs Minister last November – and Mahuta did not disappoint, with a number of subtle but telling insights.

Chief among those was her admission of New Zealand’s discomfort with efforts to expand the scope of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (although perhaps ironically, that was not raised during her formal address but in a press conference with media at the end).

Mahuta had previously accused journalists of reading too much into when New Zealand did – or didn’t – join its Five Eyes partners in signing onto statements, but her comments seemed to confirm there has been a greater strategy in play.

The sentiment is understandable: there has been a clear sense of mission creep from other members of the alliance, with talk of moving beyond mere intelligence sharing into areas like critical minerals and free trade.

Endorsing such a move could see New Zealand forced into lockstep on matters where it may prefer a different approach, or risk the opprobrium of its Five Eyes partners.

Fuel for ‘weak link’ argument?

Of course, Mahuta’s preferred approach is not without risk either, given the pre-existing criticisms of New Zealand as the weak link in Five Eyes.

With Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor attracting Australian scorn in January after saying New Zealand’s neighbour should “follow us and show respect” to China, the latest remarks – while more diplomatic – could fuel the argument that New Zealand is shying away from collective action against Chinese aggression out of naked self-interest.

Certainly, how Mahuta’s speech is received across the ditch could add an extra edge to the New Zealand visit of her Australian counterpart Marise Payne this week (not that any was needed, given the deportee-related frictions already evident in the relationship).

How the speech is reported in Beijing will also be interesting to watch, given the state-owned media there has not shied away from seeking to drive a wedge between New Zealand and Australia over their different approaches to the superpower.

But it would be unfair to paint the remarks overall as dovish appeasement, when there was plenty in the speech with which China could take issue.

Mahuta delivered a warning about economic overexposure to the Chinese market, saying it was “prudent not to put all eggs into a single basket”.

That is hardly a shocking revelation – indeed, Jacinda Ardern has said as much in the past – but it was nonetheless a reminder that the rapid rise in two-way trade after the signing of the China FTA is something of a double-edged sword.

Long-standing (and contested) concern about so-called “debt trap diplomacy” in the Pacific also came to the fore, with Mahuta warning about the region’s levels of indebtedness.

“China can play a role in the long-term economic recovery of the region but there is a substantial difference between financing loans and contributing to greater ODA [official development assistance] investment in particular to the Pacific.”

The hope seems to be that we can simply agree to disagree with either side of the Great Power rivalry as suits, without any lasting offence being taken.

Peters did raise the issue last term, albeit in his own inimitable way, but Mahuta’s remarks acted as a reminder that the geopolitical factors behind New Zealand’s Pacific Reset remain very much in play.

Taken as a whole, the speech was an attempt to delicately traverse what she noted at the start were increasingly choppy waters, with US-China tensions growing over Taiwan, the South China Sea and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims, among other issues.

The Government would continue to speak out on those issues, but “in each case we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand’s interests”.

The hope seems to be that we can simply agree to disagree with either side of the Great Power rivalry as suits, without any lasting offence being taken.

That seems an increasingly tall order, given the steadily heightening stakes and the sense we will not be allowed to sit aside indefinitely.

Pull it off, and we may be able to have our cake and eat it too – fall short, and New Zealand could face the worst of both worlds.

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

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