Jacinda Ardern has provided further ballast for New Zealand’s move towards the Indo-Pacific, while the United States’ top Asia official has warned his country’s internal wounds must be healed for its foreign policy to succeed

“We have entered an era of formidable environmental, health, and geopolitical difficulties.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words, in a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA), were both an unremarkable statement of the obvious and by that same token a grim reminder of the situation the world finds itself in.

The focus of the NZIIA conference, the Indo-Pacific and New Zealand’s role within it, meant Ardern’s speech served as a reinforcement of Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s own remarks to the Otago Foreign Policy School earlier this month, but with the greater profile that attaches to a prime ministerial address.

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Where Mahuta’s wider-ranging speech had three ‘Indo-Pacific’ references, Ardern’s extended to 15 – but as in the former case, the Asia-Pacific did not rate a single position, suggesting the formerly beloved term may be all but dead to New Zealand decision-makers.

Indeed, Ardern said the Government had “embraced the concept of an Indo-Pacific as the wider home for New Zealand, locating Aotearoa in a larger ecosystem of nations and regions that includes East Asia, the Pacific, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim”.

As the Prime Minister noted, we are far from alone in that new focus, with upwards of a dozen other nations (including ASEAN members and several Five Eyes partners) pivoting towards the concept.

Not all those countries view the Indo-Pacific in the same way, however, and Ardern went some way towards clarifying New Zealand’s own mindset as she set out five “fundamental principles”: respect for rules, openness, inclusivity, sovereignty, and transparency.

In a clear nod to Chinese concerns, openness and inclusivity were held out as particularly critical: “Often language and geographic ‘frames’ are used as subtext, or a tool to exclude some nations from dialogue. Our success will depend on working with the widest possible set of partners.”

Openness and inclusivity are crucial to New Zealand’s view of the Indo-Pacific, Jacinda Ardern says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Yet emphasising inclusivity requires looking past China’s failures to adhere to some of those other principles.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of an international tribunal rejecting China’s historical claims to much of the South China Sea, yet since then Beijing has continued to build and militarise artificial islands in the territory.

While Ardern did not specifically note the occasion, she did cite the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea when speaking about the need to follow international law, adding: “We also have serious concerns over the situation in the South China Sea.”

The issue of transparency is also an obvious area of sensitivity, while references to sovereignty may have different connotations to Beijing – which cites the concept in defending its behaviour in Hong Kong and Taiwan – than to Washington, or Wellington.

Of course, criticisms about a lack of transparency and adherence to international law could apply to the US under Donald Trump, and American diplomat Kurt Campbell emphasised Joe Biden’s desire to wipe the slate clean in his own speech to the conference.

Campbell, officially the US coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council but often referred to as Biden’s ‘Asia tsar’, was made an honorary Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014 for his efforts to thaw US-NZ relations under Barack Obama.

So it was little surprise to hear him gush about the country: “In many respects, even during our dark periods and our challenging times, we look to New Zealand for inspiration and for motivation.”

“The United States does not seek a new Cold War, we do not seek a harmful or deleterious competition with China: what we are seeking is a stable relationship. We recognise that a dominant feature of that relationship will be competition, but we believe that competition can often bring out the best in countries and people, and that’s what we’re seeking to do.”

There were also some soothing words on the constant issue of New Zealand’s standing within the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, Campbell describing the country as “a partner of an excellent standard”.

“I think you’ll see efforts to try to expand [to] other countries that are participating perhaps on the margins or on the edges of this group … but we’re very satisfied and pleased by the engagement of New Zealand in this effort – in fact, I do not believe there has been any discord in this group whatsoever.”

He also offered broad support for the idea of Aotearoa taking up some role within the Quad, albeit with the caveat that the maritime security grouping still “[had] to walk before we can run”.

“I believe that over time, that it will be possible and indeed valuable if we think about having associations that might be described ‘friends of the Quad’, in which countries that are particularly interested in some of the working groups, and the work that is being undertaken on cybersecurity, on maritime, on humanitarian relief … I can think of no other partner that I’d like to see involved more than New Zealand.”

As for the US itself, Campbell focused as much on what it did not intend to do as what it did.

The superpower was “not seeking to operate as a hegemon, but more as a convening player and strategic actor in the region”, he said, downplaying fears of any imminent military conflict.

“The United States does not seek a new Cold War, we do not seek a harmful or deleterious competition with China: what we are seeking is a stable relationship. We recognise that a dominant feature of that relationship will be competition, but we believe that competition can often bring out the best in countries and people, and that’s what we’re seeking to do.”

Keen on trade, Pacific – but note of caution

On trade, a sore spot given the American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership under Trump, Campbell asked for patience as he acknowledged the desire for the US to play an active economic role in the region.

Those may not be empty words either, with Bloomberg reporting on early plans for a US-led digital trade deal in the Indo-Pacific as a way of countering China’s influence.

Intriguingly, Campbell also suggested the US could seek to play a role in bringing the “walkaways” from the Pacific Islands Forum back to the table, as it seeks to help the Pacific on issues like poverty, health and climate change.

“The problems are so overwhelming, they’re so challenging that we are better off tackling them together and in partnership, and so I think what you will see is the United States trying to work with others, carefully encouraging, in an effort to try to bring elements of unity back to the Pacific Islands, given the magnitude of what we’re facing today.”

There was a note of caution though, that American plans to reassert its role in the wider world relied on it first looking inwards to patch up the domestic scars caused by the Trump presidency.

“We all understand that in many respects, the United States has been wounded, that there are elements of our democracy that have been challenged, that the coronavirus has been extremely difficult here as it has been elsewhere.

“And the President has insisted the most important ingredient in our overall strategy is to recover domestically, and also to focus on our economic revival, and where possible to try to heal some of the divisions that become so apparent in our own country.”

That will be no small task.

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

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