Penny Wong’s visit to New Zealand showed the Australian foreign minister intends to take a more diplomatic approach than her predecessors at a time when both nations face greater challenges in the region, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment:  “We can work together, and we do and will.”

Asked how her country and New Zealand could respond to China’s manoeuvres in the Pacific, Penny Wong delivered a straightforward, almost whispered response – but one which speaks volumes about how the new Australian foreign minister intends to approach her job.

Her remarks came during a press conference with Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta on Thursday, part of a flying trip to Wellington for trans-Tasman ministerial consultations.

New Zealand is the fifth country she has visited in less than a month since Labor took power in Canberra – and a sixth is imminent, with Wong heading to the Solomon Islands on Friday to meet the country’s prime minister Manasseh Sogavare.

Wong’s energetic start has been used against Mahuta by domestic critics, who point to the fact her Australian counterpart has already outstripped her international travel record despite an 18-month head start.

The comparison is not entirely fair – a sizeable chunk of Mahuta’s time as minister came at a point when almost no politicians were heading offshore due to the Covid-19 pandemic – but it is fair to question (as experts have) whether New Zealand has slipped behind the pack in a period of significant introspection.

It was little surprise that Mahuta faced a question about her lack of air miles, with the minister insisting she enjoyed travel and intended to head to the Pacific soon.

In fact, her next trip is to Rwanda this weekend for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, better known as CHOGM. While the event would likely have been in her diary for some time, the visit to Africa is nonetheless awkward timing at a point when New Zealand has been accused of neglecting its Pacific neighbours (the press release made a point of noting Mahuta would host a working lunch for the Commonwealth’s Pacific members).

Penny Wong offered tacit support to Nanaia Mahuta over suggestions the New Zealand minister has lacked vigour in her role. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Wong did what she could to back Mahuta, praising her insights “as someone who’s been in the job longer than I have and has a much greater insight into the Pacific”.

She also noted New Zealand’s track record on indigenous issues, where Mahuta’s work on integrating the Māori worldview into foreign affairs meshes well with the new Australian government’s commitment to develop a First Nations foreign policy.

For all that China has loomed over the two countries’ foreign policy concerns, the country was directly mentioned just once (by Mahuta, responding to a question about Chinese military operations in the Taiwan Strait).

But Beijing remains high on the list of Australia’s geopolitical concerns, as was made abundantly clear by Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles’ speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend.

Marles, who is also Australia’s defence minister, gave an impressive address which included some of the more direct denunciations of China’s conduct to be made at the security summit.

“Chinese militarisation of features in the South China Sea needs to be understood for what it is: the intent to deny the legitimacy of its neighbours’ claims in this vital international waterway through force,” he said, further calling out the country’s silence on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It is…reasonable to expect China make clear it does not support the invasion of a sovereign country in violation of the UN Charter, and China’s own longstanding commitment to the Charter’s founding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. That China has not done so should give us cause for concern, especially given the investments it is making in military power.”

Yet, as with Wong, Marles made explicit the desire for a clean break from the previous government’s approach as he spoke of “a new era of engagement in the Pacific” and valuing a productive relationship with China.

“You’re setting it up as a sort of a binary – I don’t agree with that…that’s [the Quad] a very important group, particularly at a time of strategic competition, but it works alongside other parts of the regional architecture.”
– Penny Wong

That shift away from a more pugilistic approach will come as a relief to New Zealand, which already has a difficult enough task balancing its relationships with Washington and Beijing without worrying about comparisons with Canberra.

Chinese media have in the past made a point of driving a wedge in between New Zealand and Australia, with the former’s “sober diplomacy” set against Australian aggression – something which will be harder to do if the temperature is dialled back across the ditch. 

Wong’s mention of a more constructive Australian approach on climate change will also allow for improved trans-Tasman collaboration in the area repeatedly described by Pacific leaders as the region’s single greatest security risk.

One complication to joint initiatives could be New Zealand’s omission from a number of new ‘minilateral’ groupings, such as the Quad and Aukus, which Australia works within – although Wong gave short shrift to the suggestion that would be a hindrance.

“You’re setting it up as a sort of a binary – I don’t agree with that…that’s [the Quad] a very important group, particularly at a time of strategic competition, but it works alongside other parts of the regional architecture.”

That will be music to New Zealand’s ears – but as Wong’s visit to the Solomons shows, more difficult obstacles may lie ahead for both nations.

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

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