Opinion: Nanaia Mahuta has achieved something remarkable and isn't afraid to take NZ's foreign policy in a different direction

  • 30/04/2021

By Geoffrey Miller for the Democracy Project

OPINION: This Sunday marks the six-month anniversary of Nanaia Mahuta's appointment as foreign minister. Geoffrey Miller looks at how she is grappling with some fundamental geopolitical challenges.

In just her first six months, Nanaia Mahuta has already achieved something remarkable.

She is arguably New Zealand's highest-profile foreign minister in decades – and all without even leaving the country.

Her speech to the China Council last week – and the ensuing Q&A in which she openly signalled an unwillingness to sign up to future Five Eyes statements criticising China – has proven to be a pivotal moment. It has unleashed a debate – years in the making – about where exactly New Zealand stands in world geopolitics.

It is a measure of the degree to which tensions are rising between the United States, Russia and most of all China that Mahuta's speech has sparked such an intense debate over New Zealand's place in the world.

In headline terms, international media treatment has ranged from "Beijing is driving a wedge between Australia and New Zealand" (UK's The Times) to "New Zealand secures its interests by distancing from US-led clique" (Beijing's state-run Global Times).

China remains at the core of the debate. But the conversation is also becoming a broader one about New Zealand's values. In a TV interview last weekend, Mahuta was quizzed on New Zealand's reluctance to condemn current Chinese actions against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region as genocide. But she was also unwilling to join the United States in recognising historic actions by Turkey in Armenia in 1915 as genocide.

In both cases, Nanaia Mahuta largely deflected and dodged the interviewer's questions, calling them "complex issues" and saying that she was happy to get advice about them – a favoured stalling tactic of Jacinda Ardern's.

These are undoubtedly sensitive matters. Mahuta's words – and the exact wording of her responses – matter greatly. They are being scrutinized everywhere from Ankara to Beijing, and from Canberra to Washington – as the prompt reaction to last week's China speech shows.

Mahuta knows that officially recognising genocide in Armenia or in China's Xinjiang region – the latter the subject of an Act Party parliamentary motion next week - would trigger swift and severe repercussions for diplomacy and trade.

At the crux of Mahuta's dilemma is the growing, Cold War-style division of the world into rival alliances and power blocs – and the growing linkage of issues that New Zealand would prefer to keep separate. Increasingly, New Zealand is being asked to pick and choose between geopolitical groupings led or heavily influenced by countries as varied as United States, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty.

A look back at press releases issued by Phil Goff, the Labour Party's last foreign minister, shows how much the world has changed since Helen Clark's Fifth Labour Government. In 2005, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, multilateralism and working through the UN was very much the order of the day. There was optimism about the potential to resume World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks and excitement about new bilateral free trade agreements. Terrorism remained a threat, but the focus was firmly on reaping the benefits of globalisation for New Zealand exporters.

A decade-and-a-half on from this seemingly more optimistic post-Cold War period, "with us or against us" alliances are threats to New Zealand's traditional multilateralist approach. The upshot is that New Zealand's new foreign minister is increasingly being asked to take a stand and state the country's position on fundamental issues.

The response by Winston Peters, Mahuta's predecessor, to this development was largely to back the West. Peters sought to move New Zealand closer towards the United States to counter China's influence – a policy that Peters called the "Pacific reset".

Mahuta is now edging back in the other direction and seeking to rebalance New Zealand's position between the two camps. Change is undoubtedly afoot: in her three published landmark speeches on foreign policy to date, Mahuta has uttered the words "Pacific reset" a grand total of twice.

In just six months, Nanaia Mahuta has not been afraid to take New Zealand's foreign policy in a markedly different direction. Amidst a challenging and increasingly volatile geopolitical environment, it will be fascinating to watch how her own foreign affairs reset continues.

Democracy Project

Geoffrey Miller is an international analyst with the Democracy Project, an initiative hosted by Victoria University of Wellington.