New Zealand’s re-elected Labour government shows it has less appetite for geopolitics
28 Jan 2021|

The big political questions of 2020 for New Zealand were could Jacinda Ardern earn a second three-year term in Wellington and could Donald Trump become a two-term president in Washington?

While definitive answers have arrived in both cases, New Zealand’s geopolitical poser has kept growing: how to deal with the effects of China’s rise, including in the South Pacific, New Zealand’s primary area of strategic interest.

And then there’s the issue that came to dominate all of our lives in 2020. For a while at least, the Covid-19 pandemic has become an independent variable. Elections became verdicts on how well incumbents dealt with the virus. Having led New Zealand into an internationally enviable position in containing the spread of Covid-19, Ardern’s already strong position became unassailable.

But the coalition government led by New Zealand’s Labour Party has changed. With its populist, anti-immigrant stance made redundant by the virus, New Zealand First is gone, having lost all of its seats in parliament. This meant goodbye to Winston Peters, the venerable foreign minister in a cabinet of younger colleagues.

As an experienced Asia hand with an eye for shifting geopolitical currents, Peters was sceptical about China’s increasing regional role, especially in the South Pacific. In a series of speeches, he went out of his way to attract America’s interest in New Zealand’s close neighbourhood.

Peters’s New Zealand First colleague Ron Mark took advantage of growing concerns about Beijing’s strategy, including in the South China Sea, to argue for urgent replacements for ageing military equipment. The result was almost unprecedented in the recent history of New Zealand defence capability decision-making. As defence minister, Mark secured replacements for the ageing P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft—the P-8 Poseidons, which will have significant antisubmarine-warfare capacities.

Before leaving office, he did the same for the overworked C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, which will be succeeded by C-130Js. Both decisions reinforce New Zealand’s interoperability with traditional partners, including Australia and the United States.

The Greens, the other party holding ministerial portfolios in the first Ardern government, didn’t stand in the way of these new defence commitments. They now are Labour’s only partner in government, with two ministerial portfolios. And once the virus no longer dominates the scene, progressive foreign policy causes, including climate change, human rights and development issues in the South Pacific, may attract an increased share of the second Ardern government’s attention.

Geopolitical ruminations will have less bandwidth: New Zealand officials may find less cabinet enthusiasm for this sort of thinking, and may question whether a National Party government some time down the line would be that way inclined.

With the government having run up a large debt trying to keep kiwis in jobs and New Zealand companies afloat during the strict Covid-19 lockdown, it’s difficult to see defence and foreign affairs having a prime call on funding.

The pools of money that Peters and Mark extracted for their portfolios may get smaller now that they’re gone. Their lesser-known successors in these roles, Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare, are not among Labour’s most senior politicians, whose main focus will be domestic challenges.

Yet the external policy demands facing New Zealand haven’t vanished. A transnational pandemic ought to be custom-made to show international machinery at its finest. But regional cooperation, at least of an inclusive and integrative sort, has not shone.

Where have the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit been when they have been needed? How much has APEC, which New Zealand chairs in 2021, made a difference?

New Zealand has been seeking out what might be called coalitions of the trusted—fellow polities and economies among whom supply chains can be salvaged and travel slowly bought back to life.  Opening up has been a slow process even among closest and most trusted partners, as the on-again, off-again idea of a travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia has demonstrated.

Wellington’s advantages of having a greater degree of autonomy from Washington in comparison to loyal ally Australia were magnified in the Trump era. Which brings us back to two elections and the China question.

President Joe Biden’s arrival in office is cause for many major sighs of relief from the second Ardern government. The world’s most important democracy is now in more responsible hands.

Biden’s White House will have a more positive outlook on some of the things that matter to New Zealand—multilateral diplomacy, climate change cooperation that recognises the problem as a clear and present danger, and promotion of a rules-based order at home as well as offshore.

Although Biden has to cope with the realities of US protectionist sentiments and is unlikely to bring the US into the trans-Pacific trade pact, his administration will be more inclined to see trade agreements as things that can work for more than one party. That’s crucial for New Zealand and many of its partners in Asia.

American policy will seem more reasonable and articulate. That alone will change America’s role in the region.

On China, Biden and the Democrats share many of the Republicans’ concerns, which are in fact concerns of the Washington policy establishment.

The US will be less prone to impose tariffs on its allies and partners, but it will expect more from them in joining the pressure on China. Those expectations will also be clear and consistent. That means more certainty, but it also means more geopolitical competition to which New Zealand and many in ASEAN are allergic.

While the Ardern government had earlier declined a 5G telecommunications upgrade bid from a local company which included Huawei, it’s unlikely that New Zealand will want to do without the economic benefits of a strong commercial relationship with China. That’s even more so when it is trying to reboot its economy from the Covid era, which has hit tourism and international student revenues. New Zealand’s signing of an upgraded free-trade agreement with China this week is evidence of that view.

Soon, though, the Biden administration will be asking New Zealand and others what more they can do for the team in the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia too. Working out what to do with these expectations will take adroit diplomacy from the Ardern government. But it will be far better to have the challenge of navigating Asia’s shifting currents, which continue to move in China’s favour, without the awfulness of Covid-19.