STUFF – Anna Powles 05:00, Nov 04 2020
OPINION: For foreign policy wonks, the portfolios of interest in the new Labour Government’s Cabinet were foreign affairs and defence.
The appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as minister of foreign affairs was a surprise as her name had not been in the mix. For many of us, the time for a woman foreign minister is well overdue; moreover, a Māori woman in the traditionally male and Pākehā portfolio takes diversity a critical leap forward.
So what does Mahuta’s appointment – and the new Government – mean for New Zealand’s foreign policy priorities and, in particular, the Government’s flagship foreign policy: the Pacific Reset?
At the press conference on Monday the foreign minister designate was asked two questions which have been central to New Zealand foreign policy in the Pacific.
First, in response to whether the Pacific Reset would remain a priority, Mahuta replied that “we will continue our commitment to our closest neighbouring area and cousins in the Pacific” and that she will work closely with Associate Foreign Minister (and Minister for Pacific Peoples) Aupito Sio.
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Other key figures will be Peeni Henare, as the new defence minister, James Shaw, as climate change minister, and David Parker in the new portfolio of minister for oceans and fisheries.
It is also possible that Ardern may take a greater foreign policy role than during the previous government where there was at times questionable co-ordination between her and former foreign minister Winston Peters. Here, Mahuta may be a safe – and loyal – pair of hands.
Over the coming weeks we will have a clearer idea of how the Government’s Pacific policy will differ in style and substance under the new foreign minister.https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/4207262/embed?auto=1A Flourish slope chart
Mahuta’s strong background in economic development – including a commitment to indigenous development – and her trade skills will likely inform her approach to aid in the Pacific at a time when innovative and Pacific-led responses to economic recovery are critical.
Her reputation as a highly skilled negotiator and relationship-builder within and beyond Māoridom will be invaluable. Trust is the currency in the Pacific and relationships often trump policy. The region is entering a particularly fractious period with the contest for the top job at the Pacific Islands Forum (of which New Zealand is a member) threatening to splinter the region against the backdrop of geo-political and economic challenges.
The second question posed to Mahuta at the press conference was about China’s role and influence in the Pacific. Her response was telling. She made reference to inheriting the portfolio from a predecessor (Peters) who “had views” and that she would form her own views after she was briefed. She again emphasised New Zealand’s smallness, the value it places on its global relationships, and trade.
The Pacific is in fact where several of New Zealand’s big-ticket foreign policy issues have converged – the Pacific Reset and China.
Peters referred to the Pacific as “a region of serious strategic significance to New Zealand”. In a year in which shifts in global power have accelerated, coupled with an international rules-based order (which New Zealand has a direct stake in) under increasing pressure, the Pacific is not immune.
The region is on the front lines of climate change, and the economic impact of Covid-19. Fijian prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama has stated that the Pacific faces a dual crisis of climate and Covid.
Strategic competition has accelerated but it has not been overly disruptive so far – instead amplifying existing dynamics and tensions – but this is likely to change.
It remains likely that pandemic diplomacy will converge with geopolitical competition and emerge as either a fault line or, less likely, a site of co-operation in the fight against Covid-19. Issues such as oceans governance, maritime security, and transnational crime – from drugs to fish – as well as the role a robust regional architecture plays as a buffer to stresses are top of the agenda and have geopolitical drivers and implications.
This is a timely opportunity for the new minister, and the new Government, to review the reset’s progress and to reflect on New Zealand’s engagement with the Pacific – including the levers and limitations which inform New Zealand’s relationships across the region. It is also a time to challenge assumptions and ask some of the tough questions.
For example, will New Zealand be able to uphold the core values and principles of the Pacific Reset – such as genuine partnership – in an increasingly securitised environment? How will New Zealand manage its alliance with Australia, including areas of Australian policy where there is divergence, such as climate change?
New Zealand also needs to adjust its own domestic policy settings, which are destabilising Pacific societies – such as its criminal deportee policy.
New Zealand’s Pacific policy in the second Labour term has the opportunity to be truly transformative and at no time in recent history has the role of foreign minister carried with it so many expectations and challenges.
Anna Powles is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University. She is writing a book on New Zealand’s contemporary Pacific policy.