Opinion & Analysis

New Zealand: An Indo-Pacific Power?

In the last two decades, the lexicon of New Zealand’s region has shifted from being the Asia-Pacific to being the Indo-Pacific.  Signifying the dawn of the Asian Century, as well as the broader inclusion of India as a rising great power, it highlights how the majority of global economic and military power rests within the Asian sphere. 

As argued in 2005 by Peter Cozens, a New Zealand analyst, the Indo-Pacific starts in the west at the edge of South Asia with Pakistan, encompasses India, then expands into North and Southeast Asia all the way down to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.  Within this spectrum, it also features great powers such as China, Japan, the United States (US) and arguably Russia.

 It is because of this conflagration of power – both on a global and country scale –that the Indo-Pacific will be the most significant arena for international affairs in the 21st century.  This assertion couples with competition between the world’s largest (both mature and emergent) great powers, especially as influence is moving away from a unilateral world order centred upon US hegemony towards a more complex and multipolar system. 

The foreign policy dynamics between the US and China are central to such contestations as the former tries to stymie the latter’s rise through diplomatic mechanisms such as AUKUS (with Australia and the United Kingdom) or the Quad (with Australia, Japan and India). 

Such interactions are usually guided by a focus on the acquisition of economic power and its conversion into military power, which is then projected outwards to achieve regional control.  This focus frequently steers analysts to think in terms of confrontation between the region’s biggest powers, as they look for trigger points for conflict such as the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca or Taiwan.  These measures - and their innate focus on great powers - negate the status and strengths of smaller, but no less significant countries. 

Aotearoa New Zealand resolutely falls into such a category and when we focus upon factors besides raw military or economic size, reveal this country to be a leading regional power. 

 A Major Regional Actor

Given her relative size (both in terms of landmass and population) and a comparative lack of imminent threats to her national and border security (courtesy of being isolated in the lower reaches of the Indo-Pacific), it is unsurprising that New Zealand does not measure up as a major economic or military power in the region.  Unlike the current and future great powers noted above, the country does not have a host of immediate neighbours or any territorial disputes, making it a very benign entity in the wider region.

 However when New Zealand’s economic performance is looked at in a more nuanced manner, a different picture – that of a high-ranking major regional actor – emerges. 

As such, in 2023 the country had the Indo-Pacific’s fourth highest GDP per capita (behind the US, Singapore and Australia).  It also has a “very high” ranking in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI), and in 2021 placed behind only Australia and Singapore. 

In terms of the Gini co-efficient measuring wealth inequality, New Zealand also ranks highly and in 2019 only Thailand, Japan and South Korea performed better. 

Finally, in terms of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity”, New Zealand is ranked second in the Indo-Pacific behind only Japan.

These various measures are much more relevant to most regional actors than military or macro-economic measures such as total GDP.  For those countries who are seeking to modernise and develop – and to do so in a sustainable and equality-informed manner – New Zealand can thus be a highly positive role model, teacher, mentor and trailblazer 

As a mechanism for such a role, New Zealand is one of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) providers.  This status places it alongside only Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US in the Indo-Pacific region.  Moreover, in 2022, Wellington gave 0.22% of its GDP as foreign aid (a.k.a. Official Development Assistance - ODA), which was the second highest total after Japan.  In terms of Pacific Aid, in 2021 New Zealand was the fourth highest donor after Australia, China and Japan, the second largest grantor after Australia for the entire period from 2008-21 and highest individual country donor to Niue and the Cook Islands.

The Empathetic Power

Building upon such strengths is recognised in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade’s “Seven Strategic Goals” set out in 2023.  In particular, the Goal of “Indo-Pacific” - to “embed Aotearoa New Zealand as an active and integral partner in shaping an Indo-Pacific order that delivers regional stability and economic integration” - sums up the strategy for how the country’s positive sources of power can lead to win-win diplomacy.  Values of listening, awareness, understanding and knowledge inform such an approach, in order to enhance whanaungatanga (connectedness) and manaakitanga (reciprocity).

By emphasising achievements, core values and an approach based upon authenticity, New Zealand has the clear capacity to establish itself as a reliable and influential power within the wider Indo-Pacific. 

Such a status has much to offer all the region’s countries but especially those who are not current or would-be great powers and who do not wish to be drawn into such competition.  Instead, New Zealand can lead by its positive example and track record to actively construct its own distinctive strategic space, and by doing so will confirm its status as an undisputed and major Indo-Pacific power. 

- the views expressed in this article are those of the author.

- Asia Media Centre