Nanaia Mahuta’s first trip to Europe comes as the region both looks to grow its influence in the Indo-Pacific and struggles with potential conflict within its own borders 

Analysis: After going more than a year without making an overseas trip, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has headed offshore for the second time in three months as she makes up for lost time.

Her destination this time? Europe, which has not been visited by a New Zealand foreign minister since April 2019 (thanks in large part to the complications of Covid-19).

Among the destinations are the United Kingdom, where Mahuta will meet British counterpart Liz Truss, and Switzerland, where she will become the first foreign minister from Aotearoa to speak at the UN Human Rights Council since its creation in 2006.

But the focal point of the trip is arguably Paris, site of the Ministerial Forum for Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific being co-hosted by the European Union and France.

France, which currently holds the rotating EU Council presidency, has made the Indo-Pacific a key focus of its six months in the role, saying it is “fully committed to implementing the EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”.

The EU’s strategy, released last September, sets out the contours of a plan for increased European engagement “based on promoting democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and universally agreed commitments” like the Paris climate deal.

The strategy notes the obvious benefits of deepening ties with a region home to three-fifths of the world’s population and 60 percent of global GDP – but also the more concerning geopolitical tensions in the region.

“There has been a significant military build-up, including by China, with the Indo-Pacific’s share of global military spending increasing from 20 percent of the world total in 2009 to 28 percent in 2019. The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and East China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.”

“When it comes to the wider Indo-Pacific region, the EU and New Zealand see very much eye to eye on the challenges, but also the opportunities, of the region.”
– Nina Obermaier

While the EU has insisted the strategy is one of “cooperation not confrontation” when it comes to China, there has been growing friction on a number of fronts.

Last month, the body launched a World Trade Organisation case against the Asian superpower over alleged “discriminatory trade practices” against Lithuania, related to the Baltic state’s decision to deepen its ties with Taiwan, while Beijing imposed countervailing sanctions on European parliamentarians last year in response to sanctions against Xinjiang officials.

The two sides are set to hold a virtual summit on April 1, but China was notably absent from the list of forum invitees.

A fellow absentee, however, is bitter rival the United States, with whom the EU for the most part enjoys a less fraught relationship. The hope may be that by keeping the two Great Powers out of the conversation, some of the inevitable head-butting can be avoided in favour of a more constructive discussion.

Nina Obermaier, the EU’s ambassador to New Zealand, told Newsroom the visit was a valuable opportunity for Mahuta to meet European ministers in the flesh after almost two years of “Zoom diplomacy”, while offering New Zealand’s unique perspective on issues like climate change and governance.

“When it comes to the wider Indo-Pacific region, the EU and New Zealand see very much eye to eye on the challenges, but also the opportunities, of the region.”

Speaking about the decision to leave both the US and China on the sidelines, Obermaier said the EU was in regular discussions with both countries but the purpose of the forum was to deepen its relationship with “like-minded” countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Ukraine, human rights to the fore

Exactly what will come out of the forum, both from a New Zealand perspective and more broadly, remains unclear.

Mahuta is co-chairing a ministerial roundtable focused on “global issues” including climate, biodiversity and health, and on the sidelines will be able to have valuable face time with a range of counterparts.

Obermaier said it was difficult to anticipate what ministers would come up with in terms of joint statements or actions, but acknowledged there was “a chance that ministers will decide to reconvene” in future.

That suggests a possibility that the forum could become an enduring part of the regional architecture, although whether it ‘sticks’ will likely depend on the success (or failure) of the inaugural event and any related projects.

Not entirely related to the Indo-Pacific but certain to be addressed is the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, with fears of a Russian invasion showing no signs of subsiding.

Mahuta has previously called on Russia “to take immediate steps to reduce tensions and the risk of a severe miscalculation”, and Obermaier said the country’s undermining of the rules-based order made the conflict relevant for countries as far away as New Zealand.

“It’s a pretty safe bet to say that this is very much on everybody’s minds, not only in Europe but beyond … to have a country that is encircling another with such a deployment of forces is concerning, it doesn’t only threaten stability and prosperity in Ukraine but stability and prosperity in Europe as a whole.”

The minister’s time in Geneva could also prove significant, including meetings with UN High Commission for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Mahuta has made no secret of her desire to put human rights at the forefront of her approach to foreign policy, including the development of a domestic framework to provide a more consistent approach to overseas breaches.

While there may be some work to go on that front, her Human Rights Council speech may serve as an opportunity to outline the approach she intends to take.

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

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