Oceania: New Zealand's foreign policy dilemmas
Series Diplomacy & Foreign Affairs

Oceania: New Zealand's foreign policy dilemmas

19 Sep 2018 - 13:04
Photo: Wellington. © Bernd Hildebrandt
Back to archive

New Zealand is a small island nation at the bottom of the world and usually speaks very softly as a good international citizen. However  less and less, geographical distance equals immunity from international trouble. Over the first months of 2018 a more explicit and “realist” strand has appeared in official foreign-policy statements: great-power competition is back and the pressure from a range of forces on the international rules-based order is increasing. Will New Zealand, highly dependent on international trade, be forced to choose sides in situations where any choice would be damaging? In this first part in a series of three on Oceania, former ambassador to the Netherlands Rob Zaagman analyses the foreign policy dilemmas of New Zealand.

New Zealand lies sheltered behind its big neighbour and ally Australia to the west and the vast Pacific Ocean to the north and east. Its great distance from the arenas of world politics and its battlefields imbues the 4.7 million Kiwi’s with a sense of security. At the same time, the volatility of world politics and its impact on the international economy make for a growing sense of unease. Economically open, New Zealand is highly dependent on international trade.

Australia, the South Pacific and Antarctica make up New Zealand’s immediate neighbourhood and the main focus of its foreign and security policy. More than half of its official development assistance is destined for the small developing island states to its north, but the relationship is complicated, in particular with the largest, Fiji. The current New Zealand government intends to devote more attention and technical and financial aid to the region, where it is concerned about increasing strategic rivalry between the great powers and growing Chinese influence.

A further foreign-policy priority region consists of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with which it has good and sometimes close economic and political relationships. Beyond looms crucial China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner and an increasingly assertive world power.

Auckland. © Bernard Spragg / Flickr

Fundamentals and priorities of New Zealand’s foreign policy

Over the past decades, the fundamentals of New Zealand’s foreign policy have been fairly constant. With a history of British settlement, political and cultural domination and influence, its norms, values and moral instincts are those of a Western European country. It supports a rules-based world order which protects freedom, democracy and human rights and promotes international trade. This policy is mainly pursued through an active membership of multilateral institutions, in particular the United Nations. In 2016-2017 it served as an elected member on the UN Security Council after a hugely successful election campaign.

New Zealand sees itself as a good international citizen, an honest broker with a reputation for fair-mindedness, acting for the common good – also further afield than its own neighbourhood, e.g. with its military in the Middle East - and saying what is right. At the same time, it usually speaks very softly, at least in public. It does take positions in multilateral forums, where at times it can be quite outspoken (e.g. on the paralysis of the five permanent members of the Security Council with regard to the situation in Syria). However, over the first months of 2018 a more explicit and “realist” strand has appeared in official foreign-policy statements: great-power competition is back and the pressure from a range of forces on the international rules-based order is increasing; moreover, New Zealand has become more vocal about the sources of these tensions.

New Zealand supports a rules-based world order which protects freedom, democracy and human rights and promotes international trade

Since the nineteen-eighties, an article of faith – or at least lip service - has been that New Zealand should pursue an independent foreign policy, based on its own interests and values, and not as a matter of course follow the lead of a great power like the UK or the US. To which extent this independence was actually pursued is a matter for debate, apart from the issue of nuclear weapons.1

In October 2017, a coalition of Labour (prime minister Jacinda Ardern), New Zealand First and the Green Party took office. While the fundamentals mentioned above underpin the new government’s foreign policy as well, several issues have received a much higher priority than during the preceding nine years of governments led by the National Party.

Non-proliferation and disarmament have been put at the top of the foreign-policy agenda, including early ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the re-establishment of the position of Minister for Disarmament (taken up by Foreign Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters). Climate change is a second top priority, also from the perspective of security and defence policy. This is reflected in the appointment of the co-leader of the Greens, James Shaw, as Minister for Climate, who lost no time in setting out a much more ambitious international climate policy than the preceding government.

Foreign trade considerations have become less important than during the National Party governments. However, that is true only in relative terms: trade remains a top priority for export nation New Zealand. Over the past decades there has been bipartisanship on this issue, including on the need for diversification of trade relationships, principally through the conclusion of free-trade agreements (FTA’s).

New Zealand Parliament
The Parliament of New Zealand © Russell Street. / Flickr

Bilateral relationships
In addition to its multilateral orientation, small nation New Zealand feels the need for a strong network of bilateral relationships. The most important four are with Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and China.

Australia is New Zealand’s only formal ally and closest friend. The two countries have the same values, norms and culture and share a lot of history, including joint military operations (ANZAC). Australia is the largest investor in New Zealand and its second-largest trading partner. They are both member of the Five Eyes partnership, in which they cooperate with the US, UK and Canada in the field of intelligence. Australia and New Zealand work together closely in the Pacific as well. However, their foreign-policy ambitions and regional priorities diverge significantly. New Zealand focuses on the South Pacific and Antarctica whereas Australia looks much more to the Indo-Pacific area and Asia.

For all the kinship and cooperation, there is always a certain tension and rivalry in the relationship between large and outspoken Australia and small and quiet New Zealand. To be sure, this is experienced much more by Kiwi’s, who are sometimes disappointed that their big cousin is apparently much less attached to the “mateship” which they suppose exists – or should exist – between them.

The relationship with the United States is seen as of fundamental importance. In particular under president Obama, relations had been steadily improving after the frosty period since Wellington’s rejection of nuclear weapons.2  However, like so many other capitals Wellington is uncertain about the course president Trump is steering and its consequences for world trade. Despite being a Five-Eyes partner, New Zealand was not awarded an exemption by president Trump regarding import duties on steel. (Australia did.) It is very uneasy about the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington and worried about the consequences of the trade conflict between the US and China. Wellington does not wish to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing; both countries are too important for New Zealand.

Small nation New Zealand needs a strong network of bilateral relationships. The most important are Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and China

New Zealand’s third special relationship, with the United Kingdom, is determined by a wide range of aspects: historical, cultural, political, security (Five Eyes) and economic. The two countries share a head of state and Cabinet ministers pay regular visits to the other country. England expects solidarity from Wellington in cases such as the attack with the nerve agent novichok in March 2018. The UK is currently New Zealand’s largest trading partner within the European Union. Talks about a FTA post-Brexit have begun, which London seems to regard as a quick win en route to a new trade relation with the world. New Zealand does not discourage this perception but waits for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations before getting into substance.

Finally, Wellington has been investing significantly in its bilateral relationship with China, which is crucial to the economy of New Zealand. It regards China as a global player of strategic importance and accepts its rise as an ambitious world power as a given. The focus of the previous National governments was on trade and Chinese investments. The current government treats the relationship in broader terms and has promised to be “cordial, constructive and clear” with Beijing about issues of disagreement, such as human rights, trade interests and the security and stability of the region. Indeed, it has become quite explicit about two major concerns.

To begin with, Wellington worries about the growing Chinese influence in the Pacific, in particular through its investments and aid, even if this is not characterized as a threat. It has called for more attention from Australia, the US and the EU for the region to maintain their influence. New Zealand’s second major concern is what it calls the increasing pressure by China on the system of international rules. At first the government, like its predecessor, expressed this concern in cautious terms of support for a stable, rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of disputes like those in the South China Sea in conformity with international law. Recently, the government has become more explicit, pointing out that artificial island building in contested waters and their militarisation risk escalating tensions and that some actions of China are a challenge to the existing order. China has strongly objected to these remarks and demanded a correction (which minister Peters has refused).

Tusk and PM of New Zealand English
EU-President Tusk meets William English, former PM of New Zealand, in 2017.  © European Council President / Flickr

The European Union and Russia
The European Union is not regarded as one of the first-tier partners of New Zealand. To be sure, the EU with its shared values and norms is seen as an important source of like-minded support in multilateral forums. On the basis of a Partnership Agreement on Relations and Cooperation (2016), the EU and New Zealand conduct a regular political dialogue and strive for closer cooperation in the areas of economy and trade, and foreign and security policy. Perhaps this will develop in a much closer strategic relationship which will elevate the relationship between New Zealand and the EU to the rank of the four mentioned above.

But for now Wellington regards the EU first and foremost as an economic partner (third trading partner), with which it wishes to conclude a FTA. The reactions to the outcome of the Brexit referendum were telling. The government and most opposition parties voiced concerns about the impact of the loss of their biggest ally within the EU on the economic relations with the Union. Only the Green Party also interpreted the result in terms of a weakening of a likeminded force in the world. (Foreign minister Peters, at the time in opposition, was – and presumably still is - in favour of Brexit.)

From a European perspective New Zealand’s position with regard to Russia is of interest as well. Obviously, because of its geographical location New Zealand has a more detached view of that country than the EU. But in July, the government explicitly accused Moscow of attempts to undermine Western democracy, challenges to international law and norms, and interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Previously, however, Wellington had been more careful.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea it had remained fairly quiet but had suspended the – almost concluded – negotiations on a FTA with Russia. However, at the request of NZ First the current coalition agreement contains the commitment to “work towards” such a FTA. When remarks by the EU ambassador to Wellington were leaked that this could put the FTA with the EU in jeopardy, prime minister Ardern emphasized that the EU had priority. After the novichok attack, the government announced it would stop its attempts to restart the FTA negotiations entirely. Also regarding MH17 the position of the government developed. In early March, minister Peters said there was no evidence that the plane was taken down at the behest of the Russian government. But after the release of the report of the Joint Investigation Team on 24 May, the government stated its support for the call by Australia and the Netherlands for Russia to be held responsible for the actions of its military in the use of a Russian anti-aircraft missile against a civilian airliner.

Less and less geographical distance equals immunity from international trouble. Like all states, New Zealand will continue to review and develop its international policy in light of the speed and measure of unpredictability of the incisive changes in world affairs. International issues will force themselves upon this small nation and confront it with fundamental questions. Can it stay aloof from issues further afield that it would rather wish to avoid or at least not to address publicly? The case of Russia suggests it cannot. Will Wellington be forced to choose sides in situations where any choice would be damaging? The case of Russia was easy, there were no great New Zealand interests at stake. Much more challenging will be the developing contest between the United States and China and the possibility of Washington at a certain moment asking for political support. The current New Zealand government has not shied away from statements for which it was rebuked by Beijing, but what if trade sanctions are applied? In any case, it would seem that Wellington will have to prepare for some tough decisions - perhaps it already is doing so.

  • 1In 1987, much to the chagrin of its American ally Wellington rejected all nuclear weapons and subsequently took the lead in a campaign to have them declared illegal.
  • 2 Washington terminated bilateral security cooperation and New Zealand was suspended from ANZUS; but Five-Eyes cooperation continued 


Rob Zaagman
Former ambassador of the Netherlands in New Zealand