The meeting between Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Joe Biden, President of the United States (US), produced a lengthy joint-statement[↗]. In it, both underlined their commitment to an international rules-based order, desire to deepen the relationship, and concern with the actions of Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The coming together of the two leaders and subsequent statement has prompted claims[↗] that New Zealand has joined the ‘escalating US offensive in the Pacific’, and that it has now[↗] ‘nailed [its] colours squarely to the US mast on security and strategic concerns’. Such commentary is misplaced.
The US and New Zealand have remained partners since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1942. The relationship was as much underpinned by a similar view on the global security situation then – leading to one another fighting alongside each other in the Second World War – as it is now. The US and New Zealand are members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group, and hold annual bilateral defence policy dialogues. New Zealand sent troops to the US-led wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.
The relationship, however, has not always been as close as that of the US and its other Indo-Pacific partners, such as Australia. America’s commitment to New Zealand under the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) was suspended in 1985 due to Wellington’s strong anti-nuclear stance and subsequent refusal to let the USS Buchanan dock in New Zealand’s waters. This heralded a more difficult period in relations between both for the decades to come. Yet, the two remained functional partners, and the Wellington Declaration[↗] of 2010 put to bed any scepticism about the strategic nature of the relationship.
Today, the main point of difference between New Zealand and the US is their respective relationship with the PRC. New Zealand walks a fine line with the PRC between human rights, strategic concerns, and trade. Wellington stopped short on labelling the abuses in Xinjiang a ‘genocide’ in May last year. It did not join a Five Eyes joint statement regarding eroding freedoms in Hong Kong in late 2020 and continues to resist the group’s functional and geographic expansion. In January 2021, New Zealand and the PRC upgraded[↗] their free trade agreement, upgrades which came into effect in April this year. The PRC is New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, making up about a third of its import value.
The character of the PRC-New Zealand relationship raises concerns in the US, and other free and open nations like the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia. But it would be disingenuous to say New Zealand ever truly drifted away from the Indo-Pacific security architecture and general strategic worldview of the US and other free open nations, and has therefore now drifted back.
Continuing to trade with the PRC does not mean Wellington and Beijing’s worldviews and strategic intent are like-minded. It is an economic relationship, and one which a post-Covid-19 New Zealand desires in order to find its feet again after over two years of harsh lockdowns. Choosing to take a different approach in its statements regarding RPC behaviour does not display an asymmetry of views in Wellington and Beijing, or a divergence between the former and Washington, but rather an administration more willing to adhere to Beijing’s sensitivities. Moreover, it is a clear display of New Zealand’s ‘independent’ foreign policy and how it is less influenced by the rhetoric and moves of Washington than others, particularly its Oceanic peer across the Tasman.
The joint statement is best assessed through a post-Ukraine lens. Geopolitical competition and the polarisation of world views between powers has magnified significantly since 24th February 2022. There is a global mood of uncertainty and that steps need to be taken to ensure future security; defence spending has ramped up across Europe, and more countries have approached NATO for membership. Wellington, too, may have felt it needed to make a move. And it did. But expecting this statement to herald the beginning of a relationship where Wellington sacrifices trade with Beijing for political wins in Washington would be mistaken. As are assertions that at some point New Zealand and the US did not have mostly aligned concerns when it came to global security.
New Zealand was and remains a like-minded partner of the US, and an important one to Indo-Pacific, particularly South Pacific, security. Its relationship with the PRC will become more complicated as geopolitical tensions increase; in maintaining vital security ties with Washington and trading with the PRC, Wellington may find itself in a position in the future where it is attempting to square a circle. This seems like a looming problem for New Zealand. However, it may not be, as what the joint statement does show is that if such a situation ever arose, Wellington would likely choose – as it always has regarding security matters – the side of free and open nations.
Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.
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