Opinion: Weekend speech by Nanaia Mahuta will be closely watched for clues to the future direction of Labour's foreign policy

  • 30/06/2021
Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Geoffrey Miller of the Democracy Project

OPINION: This weekend's Otago Foreign Policy School will be another chance for foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta to explain the Labour Government's foreign policy agenda.

The Dunedin conference has been held annually since 1966, except for last year, when it was cancelled amidst uncertainty over COVID-19.

Mahuta will give the Foreign Minister's traditional opening address at the conference on Friday.

It will be closely watched in diplomatic circles for clues as to the future direction of New Zealand's foreign policy under Labour.

Mahuta's speech to the China Council in April fuelled a debate over New Zealand's links with China after she openly stated her reluctance to sign up to future statements under the "Five Eyes" umbrella that criticised Beijing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern subsequently backed her minister publicly, casting the stance as a reflection of New Zealand's "independent foreign policy".

But it is also clear that in style and tone at least, Ardern has since sought to carefully balance out Mahuta's comments with statements that are more critical of Beijing.

China - and the role of the "Indo-Pacific" - is set to be a major theme of this week's conference, hosted by the University of Otago.

Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute based in Washington DC, will set the stage when he virtually addresses the Otago Foreign Policy School on Saturday morning.

His speech is titled The geopolitical context: America, New Zealand and the Indo-Pacific Region.

"Indo-Pacific" is a relatively new and contested term used by Western countries to refer to what has traditionally been called the Asia-Pacific.

The concept provides a less-than-subtle challenge to Chinese dominance of the region - and its use has also become a kind of short-hand to signal greater engagement and interest in the area.

Three years ago, then Foreign Minister Winston Peters told the Otago Foreign Policy School that he thought "Asia-Pacific" made more sense from a New Zealand perspective.

Peters.
Peters. Photo credit: Newshub.

But Peters gradually became a fan of the "Indo-Pacific" language. And it seems Mahuta also has no objections: the "Indo-Pacific" term now dominates New Zealand official foreign policy documents - even replacing "Asia-Pacific" in this year's Budget documents.

The "Indo-Pacific" name enjoyed a meteoric rise during the Donald Trump era, after being enthusiastically adopted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But perhaps surprisingly, the "Indo-Pacific" nomenclature has outlived the Trump administration - and has only become more popular in Western foreign policy circles.

A major reason for this stems from Kurt Campbell, US President Joe Biden's top advisor on Asia.

Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State.
Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State. Photo credit: Getty Images

Campbell is now the US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.

But he was also the architect behind Barack Obama's 'Pivot to Asia' strategy a decade ago when he served as Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Much has changed since then.

Under Obama, the main focus was on countering Chinese influence through trade. The plan centred on the US joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which later became known as the CPTPP.

Former US Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
Former US Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Photo credit: Reuters

Coming into the office on a wave of protectionist sentiment, Trump withdrew from the arrangement.

But Trump used his bully pulpit - and his Twitter account - to talk tough on China throughout his administration.

Trump's constant drumbeat of anti-China rhetoric had a significant impact, with US and Western sentiment towards Beijing deteriorating sharply during his time in office.

Of course, China's own actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and especially in relation to COVID-19 are also major factors that explain why Western attitudes towards Beijing have soured.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Biden administration has not really made any attempt to smooth things over or start afresh with China - as a new administration might be expected to do.

If anything, the approach has been to become more aggressive.

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Nanaia Mahuta.
China Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: File

In May, Campbell told a university audience that in terms of the US relationship with China, "The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end".

In actions, too, the Biden administration has shown that it is willing to stand up to Beijing - most notably seen in Biden ordering an intelligence investigation into the origins of COVID-19, amidst reports the virus could have originated in a Chinese lab.

The US has also been keen to emphasise unity amongst its allies within the Indo-Pacific.

A recent article in The National Interest, a right-leaning US foreign affairs magazine, pinpointed Campbell as the driving force behind the move for greater cohesion and cooperation between America's European partners and its Asian ones when it comes to the China strategy.

Australia, India and South Korea were all given special invitations to join the G7 summit in Cornwall that was held recently, either in person or virtually. Japan is already a member of the G7.

There has also been a flurry of other meetings focusing on the Indo-Pacific, ranging from March's first meeting at the leader level of the 'Quad' (Australia, India, Japan and the US) to a virtual EU-India summit in May.  India has also entered into new 'trilateral' arrangements that particularly focus on maritime security, first with France and Australia, and more recently with Italy and Japan.

If China was obvious, yet the unstated target of these new partnerships, things became more explicit at the NATO summit held immediately after the G7 earlier in June. A communique signed by leaders openly identified China as a threat and said that its "ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order".

Traditionally, the US's Atlantic and Pacific relationships were largely dealt with quite separately. The focus from the European side has normally been on challenges from Russia, rather than China.

But a new EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific released in April shows the bloc is now casting its net more widely.

Against this backdrop of a distinct push by the US for greater unity amongst its partners with respect to China, the Otago Foreign Policy School will be a useful opportunity to learn and interpret how New Zealand is responding to the growing interest in the Indo-Pacific.

Geoffrey Miller is an international analyst at the Democracy Project. He has lived and travelled extensively in the Middle East and is a fluent Arabic speaker.