Chris Hipkins says New Zealand being independent doesn't mean 'neutral', will take 'bread and butter' approach to foreign affairs

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins believes his approach to foreign affairs will mirror his priorities domestically: "dealing with the bread and butter issues in front of us".

Hipkins has also stressed while New Zealand may have an independent foreign policy, "independent does not mean neutral".

Hipkins told a crowd of diplomats, business people and officials at an event at Parliament it was "humbling" to recently meet Ukrainian civilians being trained by the New Zealand Defence Force in the United Kingdom.

He said that had "strengthened my resolve" in relation to providing support to Ukraine "in order to defeat Russia" and also "the absolute necessity to avoid armed conflict where we can".

"Some of the men I met that day may now be dead. Lawyers, teachers, builders. Husbands, fathers and sons. Innocents in a war not of their making."

Hipkins said New Zealand would keep making contributions to make a difference, while also continuing "to fly the flag for peace, conflict resolution and disarmament".

"In a world rushing to take sides on a range of conflicts, it's essential New Zealand plays a role in avoiding polarisation – it's what we're good at and known for.

"After all, our greatest foreign policy touchstones are our independence and our nuclear-free position, they are what help us open doors, help us to act as honest brokers and ultimately keep us safer." 

The speech on Friday is the first major foreign policy speech by PM Hipkins who acknowledged it was an "interesting time for a boy from the Hutt to become Prime Minister" against a global backdrop of "rising political polarisation", "more nationalist posturing" and moves to the "fringe" supported sometimes by mis- and dis-information. 

"Although only in the role a short time, I've been focussed on playing my part to strengthen and enhance the range of existing relationships New Zealand holds and to advance our trade opportunities," Hipkins said.

"I firmly believe that in an increasingly volatile world, shoring up and strengthening our closest relationships is key to our economic prosperity, enhancing our national security, and promoting domestic harmony."

The Prime Minister said he wouldn't be setting out a radical departure to New Zealand's foreign policy.

"If anything, my approach in the international sphere is not that dissimilar to my priorities at home – getting back to basics and dealing with the bread-and-butter issues in front of us.

"In foreign policy terms it means making sure that we have greater economic resilience across our trade markets in a time of global uncertainty.

"The longer I've been in the role the more I've seen first-hand the enormous benefits of our independent foreign policy, our role as an honest broker, and the importance of our close relationships in enhancing our prosperity and security. 

"It is important to stress at this point independent does not mean neutral."

He said New Zealand may be small, but "we are not bystanders".

"We chart our own course, with decisions that are in our national interest."

New Zealand should be neither "naive, nor fatalistic" about the challenges we face, Hipkins said.

"It means marshalling all of the tools of statecraft in a concerted, integrated way while strengthening and investing in our capabilities.

"And of course, working to strengthen all of our partnerships and relationships, here at home, across the region, and on the global stage."

Hipkins said he wasn't convinced that new emerging threats - like increasingly emboldened cyber actors or disinformation - required a new foreign policy response.

"In fact, I believe our independent position, coupled with stronger ties with partners and allies puts us in a strong position to face the future."

He gave the example of the Christchurch Call, which was developed in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks as an attempt to make online platforms safer.

"The Call leveraged our position as an honest broker on the world stage to draw together a coalition of countries, tech companies and civil society to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online," Hipkins said. 

"Key tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft and countries such as France were prepared to work with us on the Call because of our global brand as independent honest brokers."

He said this is a role New Zealand "can and should play regularly", whether it be on climate change action in the Pacific, ensuring fair global trade rules, or supporting the International Court of Justice.

"The stability, certainty and largely bipartisan approach to our foreign policy continues to be our greatest asset in addressing the emerging global threatscape."

The Prime Minister said the Government would soon be releasing New Zealand's first National Security Strategy, which will set out "how we will protect our national security and advance our national interests in a more contested and difficult world".

He said this would help inform New Zealand's decision-making "around ongoing investments in a combat-capable defence force including the interoperability of all our assets like people, intelligence, tech, AI, and defence hardware".

On AUKUS, the Australia-United States-United Kingdom security pact, Hipkins repeated that New Zealand would not be part of the nuclear submarine arrangement.

"The partners in the AUKUS arrangement understand and respect that. Australia, the US, and the UK all have long histories of cooperation with New Zealand when it comes to Defence, and we will continue to work together in areas that are consistent with our strategic needs and our values."

The Prime Minister spent much of his speech reviewing New Zealand's most critical relationships and recent developments with them.

Notably, with regard to China, which Hipkins toured last week, the Prime Minister emphasised the two countries' "different views". 

"We don't share a democratic tradition as we do with other partners like Australia, the UK and the US," he said. 

"Our differing positions on human rights is an area of disagreement. And in global affairs we have voiced concerns about China's more assertive posture on a range of issues."

But Hipkins said New Zealand has a "choice" and the Government has chosen a path of "open and honest engagement".

He referenced a report from Australia published ahead of his visit to China that said Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta was the subject of a "haranguing" by her Chinese counterpart during her trip there earlier this year. 

The Government confirmed after that reporting there had been "robust" conversations. But Mahuta wouldn't characterise it as a "wolf warrior" attack like the Australian media and didn't say she was offended by the engagement.

"Reports emerged just before my trip of a robust conversation between our Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and the Chinese Foreign Minister. You might have noticed we didn't deny that," Hipkins said. 

"Our approach has always been that we are consistent in asserting our interests, we are predictable as we advance our values and we are respectful as we engage in our relationship with China.

"A strong, mature and complex relationship means we will have those tough conversations, just as I also raised areas of disagreement with the Chinese leadership when I was in Beijing."

He said that dialogue "delivers greater security".

"New Zealand's national interests require continued engagement with China, and cooperation where our interests converge. Certainly, our economic interests are significant.

"But there are other ways in which China challenges our national interests and in these areas we will disagree. 

"However, putting up walls and closing doors doesn't serve us well in the long term and engagement is always preferable to isolation."

Hipkins is set to travel to Europe later on Friday. 

Over there, he will witness New Zealand signing the NZ-EU Free Trade Agreement and also attend the NATO Leaders' Summit. 

The Government has spotlighted the new or upgraded trade agreements secured during its tenure, including the NZ-UK FTA.

"Often trade agreements are seen only in the abstract, as pieces of paper with little impact to folk on the Main Street of our towns and cities," Hipkins said.

"But I see a direct link between our efforts internationally and helping Kiwis struggling with the cost of living at home.

"More trade means more sales for local businesses, whether they are the likes of Fonterra and Zespri, or a fledgling gaming company with 20 employees, or an importer of EVs. Trade lifts wages, improves our balance of payments, and makes everyone wealthier."

However, the Prime Minister noted that "vigilance is required". 

"As economic conditions tighten globally and locally, making sure our eggs are spread across a range of baskets offers us a greater level of protection."

The view that New Zealand cannot put all of its eggs in one basket is one that has been shared on several occasions by top New Zealand diplomats and is a big driver of the country's push for more trade agreements.

China remains New Zealand's largest trading partner, with Hipkins telling attendees of his speech that it is the "destination of around a quarter of all our exports and a significant source of tourists and students".

He said he believed the trans-Tasman relationship between New Zealand and Australia "is the strongest it has been in decades", noting recent developments on the 501 deportation issue and citizenships for Kiwis across the ditch. 

"For some time these issues had been placing a strain on an otherwise strong relationship. But those tensions dissipated at the citizenship ceremony I attended in Brisbane just before ANZAC day.

"Australia opened its arms to the hard-working and law-abiding New Zealanders who have chosen to call Australia home."

The Prime Minister called the United States a "long-standing friend and partner" and welcomed its greater engagement in the Pacific.

In the Pacific, Hipkins said while there were "understandable concerns" about "increasing strategic competition" in the region - concerns he said New Zealand shares - the first topic always raised by him by Pacific leaders is climate change. 

He said Cyclone Gabrielle had been a reminder for New Zealand "of the increasing volume and intensity of extreme weather events across the Pacific".

"Our commitment to provide over half a billion dollars in climate finance in the region is being rolled out, but our neighbours are asking more of us.

"They also ask us to use our voice on the world stage to draw attention to the climate crisis in our region and to use our relationship with countries that are large polluters to increase their efforts to reduce emissions.

"That is a commitment my Government will continue to make, both through leading by example at home, while exerting pressure on others to do more internationally."