Jacinda Ardern urges nations to 'let go of narrow, nationalistic approaches' in foreign affairs speech

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is urging other nations to "let go of narrow, nationalistic approaches" to help the world heal from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs' annual conference in Wellington on Wednesday, Ardern also called it a "disservice" to the Pacific how other nations try to "outspend one another" in the region. 

China's alleged human rights abuses didn't get much airtime in Ardern's speech. But she described the relationship as "increasingly complex", and said New Zealand's success will depend on having the "widest set of partners". 

Ardern talked up the revamped NZ-China free trade agreement, but raised "serious concerns" about the situation in the South China Sea, "including artificial island-building, continued militarisation, and activities which pose risks to freedom of navigation and overflight".

China's controversial internment camps in Xinjiang - where an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims have been detained - did not get a mention, nor did the erosion of democractic institutions in Hong Kong. 

Ardern did condemn the "trampling of democracy" in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since March. New Zealand at the time suspended all ties with the military leaders to put pressure on them. 

Ardern appeared far more optimistic about ties with the United States, now that Joe Biden is in power, whose left-leaning values align much better with the Labour Government than former President Donald Trump. 

"We look forward to working with the Biden Administration on regional issues," Ardern said. "New Zealand's relationship with the United States has deep roots, built over many decades of cooperation. We share values and have common interests."

Biden, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, have confirmed they will attend a virtual meeting on Friday hosted by Ardern, as part of New Zealand hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The speech finished with a panel discussion touching on New Zealand's relationship with the Pacific, which Ardern described as an "increasingly contested" region. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking at New Zealand Institute of International Affairs' annual conference in Wellington.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking at New Zealand Institute of International Affairs' annual conference in Wellington. Photo credit: Newshub

She touched on the shift in foreign affairs language from 'Asia-Pacific' to 'Indo-Pacific', and whether that meant New Zealand's priorities were shifting. 

"This is something that's occurred over the last four to five years. None of that should diminish our starting point for our anchor within the region - that is as a member of the Pacific.

"New Zealand is both simultaneously trying to build and strengthen its relationships within the Pacific to a much greater degree whilst also then looking more broadly out to the Indo-Pacific region. But I wouldn't want us to lose that anchor point and the importance of strengthening that anchor point.

"Within that region, it is increasingly complex, it is increasingly contested, and to understand that complexity, that's where we draw in the wider Indo-Pacific, because within that region there is a stake in interest in our corner of the world, and if we are to promote those ideals and values that are most important to us, we must do that within that wider regional context, because they are increasingly looking into our backyard."

Ardern also talked about the Government's regional strategy called the Pacific Reset, and what it means in terms of diplomacy. 

"So often the question of the Pacific is framed in such a way that it's a contest of influence and from my perspective, that does a disservice to our Pacific neighbours. These are sovereign nations; these are, in often cases, maturing democracies.

"Our Pacific approach and our Pacific Reset was about actually acknowledging that we needed to move away from a donor-donee relationship to a much greater acknowledgement of the partnerships that we needed to build and that we needed to work alongside one another, so really changing the nature of our relationship in terms of diplomacy - not just an approach to spend which, to me, often is where the conversation for other countries tends to land."