New Zealand's New PM Isn't Going Back to Old Ways on China

commentary

(Nikkei Asia)

New Zealand's Prime Minister Chris Luxon at a bilateral meeting at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney, Australia, December 20, 2023, photo by Mick Tsikas/Reuters

New Zealand's Prime Minister Chris Luxon at a bilateral meeting at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney, Australia, December 20, 2023

Photo by Mick Tsikas/Reuters

by Derek Grossman

January 17, 2024

New Zealand's new conservative coalition government, led by the National Party's Christopher Luxon, is sending strong signals that it plans to double down on its liberal predecessor's hardened stance toward China.

Under Labour prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins, there was a seminal shift in Wellington's strategic approach toward Beijing. In a clear break with the past, Labour sought to characterize China as not just a crucial economic partner of New Zealand but also as a rising political and security challenge, especially in the Oceania region.

Although Luxon's center-right National Party has a track record of prioritizing business interests in China over addressing sensitive challenges like human rights, Taiwan, or the South China Sea, its voice and policy preferences have been diluted to sustain the governing coalition. The party is now sharing power with China-resistant allies, including the populist New Zealand First and libertarian ACT New Zealand.

Luxon, himself a protege of well-known Sinophile and former Prime Minister John Key, clearly wants to improve New Zealand's ties with China in pursuit of economic benefits. On the campaign trail last year, Luxon said he would “absolutely” welcome investment into New Zealand via China's Belt and Road Initiative.

New Zealand's new conservative coalition government is sending strong signals that it plans to double down on its liberal predecessor's hardened stance toward China.

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Early signs from the coalition government which took office in late November, however, speak to a less-accommodating approach. Notably, Gerry Bownlee, the National Party's pro-China shadow foreign minister, was passed over as foreign minister in the formation of Luxon's cabinet in favor of NZ First leader Winston Peters.

Peters, a living legend in Kiwi foreign policy, has previously served several times as foreign minister, most recently under Ardern between 2017 and 2020. In addressing the country's diplomatic corps last month, Peters said, “We will lift our strategic presence and engagement, particularly in the Pacific [islands] but also the wider Indo-Pacific region.”

This is more than rhetoric. Peters was the mastermind behind the Pacific Reset strategy implemented under Ardern to counter Beijing's growing clout with Pacific island nations. Hence, under Luxon, Peters is likely to further elevate Wellington's pushback against China.

In the same speech, Peters questioned New Zealand's longstanding progressive “independent” foreign policy of engaging partners on the basis of indigenous Maori values of equality and universal human rights.

The approach played especially well in post-colonial Oceania but Peters, himself Maori, seems intent on trading it in for aligning New Zealand with the United States in the global great-power competition against China. Luxon, meanwhile, has pledged to raise defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Peters said his plan is to “vigorously refresh engagement with our traditional like-minded partners,” specifically mentioning the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, which also includes Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and AUKUS, the defense technology initiative involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

This suggests New Zealand may soon cooperate with the AUKUS trio on nonnuclear technologies including cybersecurity, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities, while still remaining apart from AUKUS' original focus on nuclear-powered naval submarines.

In Canberra last month on his official debut trip as prime minister, Luxon himself said, “AUKUS is a very important element in ensuring we've got stability and peace in the region.”

The defense portfolio in Luxon's cabinet is held by Judith Collins. She recently criticized Hipkins' government as “anti-American” for failing to work with AUKUS but has not yet made her views on China widely known.

Yet at the same time, the draft foreign policy strategy Luxon's government released last month essentially mirrors key components of policy statements issued under Hipkins, including New Zealand's debut National Security Strategy, published last August.

While the future is unclear, Beijing cannot be pleased to see a country that had been one of its closest Western friends drift further away.

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Although the heavily redacted public version contains no mention of China, it talks of “heightened strategic tension” that is causing an international shift “from rules to power,” an oblique reference to China and Russia.

Of course, much is still unknown about the details of the new government's foreign and security policy approach, and much remains subject to change. The early indications, however, point to a New Zealand planning to deepen alignment with like-minded partners, not just to address China, but probably in regard to other challenges as well.

Wellington, for example, signed onto a declaration from Washington earlier this month about forming a multinational coalition to deal with Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. This prompted former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark to wonder aloud whether Kiwi policy is now simply to follow the U.S.

While the future is unclear, Beijing cannot be pleased to see a country that had been one of its closest Western friends drift further away.


Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on January 15, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.