Even as Ardern signals alignment with US, New Zealand still seeks to maintain distance

New Zealand has long prided itself on having an “independent” foreign policy that charts a middle path between great powers. It’s an approach for which the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her new foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, have voiced strong support. Over the past week, however, Ardern has moved towards a much closer alignment with America.

It’s the latest sign that for small countries caught amid great power competition, independence is increasingly difficult. It also raises the question: is this the end of New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy, and if so, what comes next?

Ardern’s first move came in a speech last week to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, a prominent foreign policy thinktank. “The novelty of the speech was Ardern’s fulsome embrace of the phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’,” said Van Jackson, an international relations academic at Victoria University of Wellington. The use of that term is important, said Jackson, because the “Indo-Pacific” is a geopolitical framing that “arose explicitly to counter China” by rhetorically rebalancing Asia towards India.

In the sensitive world of diplomacy, words matter. Ardern’s use of the “Indo-Pacific” framing signals that New Zealand is on America’s side and eager for assistance.

That signalling was gratefully reciprocated. Immediately following Ardern as a speaker to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs was Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s “Asia tsar”, who emphasised that, “Probably the country that needs to do more is not New Zealand, it is the United States.”

Ardern’s second move came days later, after New Zealand’s foreign intelligence agency connected Chinese state-sponsored hacking groups to cyber-attacks on New Zealanders. New Zealand quickly joined a coalition including the US, the UK, the European Union and Australia, which denounced the attacks and urged China to stop them. It demonstrated that, when faced with aggression, New Zealand would side with its traditional allies.

This willingness to align with America can be understood by comparing today’s world to that of the 1980s, when New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy first took shape. Back then, a new Labour government banned visits by nuclear-powered ships and allowed the collapse of a military alliance with America. Great power competition still dominated world politics but was approaching its end; the remaining points of cold war conflict were distant enough that the risks of independence felt sufficiently minor.

This time, New Zealand is at the frontline of great power competition. In her speech Ardern explained that her use of the “Indo-Pacific” was a reaction to “more challenging geopolitics” in the Pacific. Like many others, New Zealand has struggled to manage relations with China.

Ardern described the relationship as “increasingly complex”. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Mahuta drew attention to the Australia-China trade war to warn that “it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us”.

In this context, the costs of foreign policy independence – and appeal of great power alignment – have become clearer.

It’s important, however, not to overstate the significance of these developments. Some New Zealand observers asserted after Ardern’s speech that she had “firmly aligned New Zealand’s foreign policy with the United States”. But although Ardern and Mahuta have brought New Zealand closer to America, they are still trying to maintain some distance.

While she embraced the “Indo-Pacific” framing, Ardern simultaneously emphasised that, “Often language and geographic ‘frames’ are used as subtext, or a tool to exclude some nations … Our success will depend on working with the widest possible set of partners.” Instead of adopting the Indo-Pacific’s exclusionary implications, Ardern attempted to redefine the term. Even as they signal alignment with America, Ardern and Mahuta are holding on to some degree of separation.

It’s an approach with roots in the post-cold war era. While New Zealand has long maintained a security relationship with America, in a unipolar world it could still plausibly claim independence just by signalling some distance from its partner. But we now live in a bipolar world where China and America are playing a zero-sum game. Distance from America might alienate it; alignment with America might anger China.

Given this tension, is “independence” possible? And if not, what do we do instead? These are important questions which demand clear answers. But in New Zealand the public discussion – and the government’s explanation – of foreign policy strategy remains vague and often contradictory. According to David Capie, director of New Zealand’s Centre for Strategic Studies, “There isn’t a deep conversation about foreign and defence policy” in New Zealand.

That forces observers to try to read tea leaves (like our use of the term “Indo-Pacific”), risks misunderstandings, and leaves space for more divisive voices to dominate.

Ardern emphasised the role of “transparency” in her speech last week – the importance of states being “honest about their foreign policy objectives and initiatives beyond their borders”. To coherently address the China challenge, Ardern and Mahuta must channel this transparency themselves. The nitty-gritty of diplomacy can take place behind the scenes, but for New Zealand to navigate this new era of global turbulence they must be clearer about the larger foreign policy strategy they wish to take.

Pete McKenzie is a Wellington-based journalist focused on politics, foreign affairs and legal issues