Opinion & Analysis

We need to talk about Asia: The PM’s foreign policy speech

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has set out her government’s foreign policy priorities in a speech in Wellington. Former diplomat Pip McLachlan discusses what its focus on a values-based framework means for New Zealand’s engagement with Asia.

OPINION: The new Government had its first outing on the international stage in Asia at the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam. Late last year, just weeks after the election, the New Zealand public were treated to reports of our Prime Minister’s exchanges with regional leaders – and the phoenix-like birth of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

But since then, the priorities have been predominantly domestic, at least in the public eye.

So the Prime Minister’s speech on 27 February to a conference organised by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) was significant – there was a reason why the front row of the NZIIA conference was stacked with diplomats, keen to hear what the Prime Minister’s articulation of her foreign policy priorities would be.

Who would get the rose? Who would walk away empty-handed?

We saw a shift in emphasis to a values-based framework. A commitment to trade liberalisation wasn’t absent from this framework – but values as part of our foreign policy identity loomed larger.

“Not everyone can get a shout-out in a speech like this – but I thought the absence of Japan was striking, particularly given our like-mindedness on so many issues.

We were told that our global standing was high: “When we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.”

This is an important part of New Zealand’s international reputation, to be sure. It was a key factor in our successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council – where some 75 percent of UN member states chose us over others.

But it’s been a while since a Prime Minister has preferenced values in such a way. 

Other points of departure highlighted in the media coverage were the fresh emphasis on climate change and disarmament.

We heard about continuity in our relationship with the Pacific.

But I was left wondering what this values-based framework might mean for New Zealand’s engagement with Asia. 

This isn’t surprising, really – it’s my day job. I co-ordinate the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Track II programme – the shorthand for which is “informal diplomacy” with think-tanks in Asia.

And it’s incredibly helpful to now have a speech by the Prime Minister articulating her government’s foreign policy priorities. Where are the points of continuity and departure in our relationship with Asia?

Commentators have been quick to focus on the PM’s references to China and what this signalled in terms of a response to concerns around Chinese influence. The Prime Minister told us that her government would “speak honestly and openly with our friends in Beijing. Whether it is about human rights, pursuing our trade interests or the security and stability of our region”.

Will this (as a former Ambassador to China, Michael Powles, has suggested) see a more “deliberate discourse”, where we more concertedly raise these points of difference with China? Words, of course, are easy; the proof will be in the pudding.

What about the rest of Asia?

Not everyone can get a shout-out in a speech like this – but I thought the absence of Japan was striking, particularly given our like-mindedness on so many issues. Japan was a key partner for New Zealand in progressing what became the CPTPP. It is a longstanding and substantial donor in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia.

So why did it get dropped off the list of mentionables?

Another thought to ponder: How does a values-based framework mesh with the resurgence of illiberalism in the region? This isn’t just a China thing. You could argue there are currently no democratic governments in mainland Southeast Asia, for example.

But what makes for a “good relationship” in Asia? As we learn through our Track II engagement with partners in the region, sharing perspectives on common challenges can be incredibly valuable – even when we don’t agree.

Talk of shared values has traditionally played well to a constituency of like-minded partners in post war world order – as Australian foreign policy expert Allan Gyngell noted, we could support the rules because they were set by us and those like us.

But in the 21st century, this rule-making is going to be a more contested process.

As Gyngell has noted, China is no longer hiding and biding its time, as it did under Deng Xiaoping. It feels increasingly confident that it has a model that is different to others but just as legitimate, offering a different pathway.

Others in the region are open to alternatives. As always, there’s no small modicum of self-interest at play.

New Zealand’s foreign policy community is going to be challenged to map out pathways that meet our best interests. Interests and values don’t automatically align.

How we engage with Asia will be consequential for New Zealand’s prosperity and security. We’ve traditionally framed this up in trade terms: six of our top ten trading partners are in Asia, after all.

And it matters at home as well. By 2038, more than one in five New Zealanders will be of Asian ethnicity. When the Prime Minister says she hopes New Zealanders “will see themselves” in the approach the government takes, the Asia dimension really matters.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this evolves. I know we have a strong community of foreign policy experts in academia and beyond who have a good deal to contribute to this discussion.

Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre