An unprecedented invitation to the Nato summit looms large on Jacinda Ardern’s agenda for Europe. Some see the visit as an unwelcome sign of New Zealand being drawn closer to war, but others say such concerns are overhyped, Sam Sachdeva reports

In the months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has found herself speaking more and more frequently about the unstable geopolitical climate.

That is set to continue in Europe, with Ardern kicking off her time in the region with a visit to the Nato summit in Madrid – the first time a New Zealand leader has been invited to take part.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, as it is formally known, is an alliance of the United States, Canada, and 28 European countries set up in the aftermath of World War II to head off further conflict.

Under its system of collective security, an attack against one member is considered an attack against all – a principle invoked for the first time after the September 11 terror attacks.

Now, war in Europe has the region on high alert and led the grouping to extend a hand to those further afield.

Nina Obermaier, the European Union’s ambassador to New Zealand, tells Newsroom the invitation reflects the role Ardern’s Government has played to date in standing up against Russia’s war.

“What this conflict has shown is that we really need to stand together if we want to defend the global rules-based order, so in this sense, I think it’s really significant.”

Some in Aotearoa are less enamoured with the news, however.

In an opinion piece published by Newsroom, former Green Party MP Keith Locke argued Ardern’s Nato visit would compromise New Zealand’s non-nuclear status and independent foreign policy, “which has been focused on peacemaking more than warmaking”.

“Our Prime Minister’s latest decision to attend the Nato leaders meeting, and miss the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda shows where her priorities lie. Former prime minister David Lange, a champion of the Commonwealth and our nuclear-free policy, might be turning in his grave,” Locke wrote.

“It’s not like Nato and New Zealand have suddenly discovered each other – it’s more that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a new purpose for what had at one point with the Afghanistan commitment become quite a close partnership.”
– Prof Robert Ayson, Victoria University of Wellington

But New Zealand’s ties to Nato haven’t appeared overnight, as Victoria University of Wellington strategic studies professor Robert Ayson notes.

New Zealand took part in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force’s mission to Afghanistan in 2001, while in 2012 John Key signed a “partnership cooperation accord” with the organisation’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“It’s not like Nato and New Zealand have suddenly discovered each other – it’s more that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a new purpose for what had at one point with the Afghanistan commitment become quite a close partnership,” Ayson says.

The invite to Ardern and the leaders of Australia, Japan and South Korea comes at a time when China’s geopolitical manoeuvrings in the Indo-Pacific have attracted significant attention from those outside the region.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing has lashed out at the decision, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying: “Nato has already disrupted stability in Europe. It should not try to do the same to the Asia-Pacific and the whole world.”

China’s growing influence is indeed on the agenda for the first time as Nato reviews the latest version of its Strategic Concept, a document updated roughly once a decade to reflect the major security challenges facing the alliance.

Speaking at an event on the eve of the summit, Stoltenberg said discussion of Beijing’s role was a major change, with China not mentioned once in the last Strategic Concept from 2010.

“We don’t regard China as an adversary but we need to realise that the rise of China, the fact that they’re investing heavily in new modern military equipment, including scaling significantly their nuclear capabilities, investing in key technologies, and trying also to control critical infrastructure in Europe coming closer to us, makes it important for us also to address that.”

NZ ‘already part of the team’

But Ayson says the war in Russia has reduced its bandwidth for dealing with issues outside of Europe, while he gives short shrift to any suggestion New Zealand will find itself signed up to the organisation, saying Nato would be disinclined to expand its membership beyond the North Atlantic.

On the broader issue of New Zealand moving closer to the United States, he says the warming in that relationship has taken place over years rather than overnight, as the result of an increasingly volatile international environment.

“I don’t actually think the Nato visit is going to be that moment where they say: ‘New Zealand’s joined the team’ – New Zealand’s been part of the team for quite some time on the security side.

“It’s just that those things are becoming more prominent partly because of what we’re seeing, and one of the things we’re seeing is China becoming more ambitious in the security area in ways that don’t always fit New Zealand’s perceptions of what’s good for it and the region.”

There will still be difficult questions for Ardern and her Cabinet to address, Ayson says, such as how they manage expectations of Nato partners regarding New Zealand’s ongoing contribution to Ukraine.

Then there is the matter of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s reported arrangement of a four-way summit with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand on the sidelines of Nato.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Kishida laid out the framework of a more muscular foreign policy and defence approach from Japan, and exactly how nations like New Zealand may fit into that remains to be seen.

It would be little surprise to see the Government announce an additional commitment to Ukraine while Ardern is at Nato – but that may be just the start.

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

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