New Zealand Becomes the Latest Country to Pivot to the U.S.


Apr 26, 2024

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (r.) meets with New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2024, photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (r.) meets with New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2024

Photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on April 23, 2024.

On the same day U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever United States-Japan-Philippines summit at the White House, a much less conspicuous meeting to strengthen the U.S. alliance network in the Indo-Pacific took place a few blocks away.

On April 11, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened for talks at the State Department, declaring in a joint statement that their two countries are “working more closely than ever.” In almost any other case, this could be dismissed as meaningless diplomatic boilerplate. But in this case, it was a clear sign that a new era in New Zealand's foreign policy was underway. Given that U.S.–New Zealand relations have long been strained—in part because Wellington charted a China-friendly course—the meeting was the latest example of Beijing's behavior in the region driving countries into Washington's welcoming arms.

The frostiness between New Zealand and the United States dates back to the 1980s, when a Labour government in Wellington declared its part of the Pacific a nuclear-free, disarmed zone and refused to allow port visits by U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. The Reagan administration, in turn, suspended U.S. obligations to New Zealand under the Australia–New Zealand–United States security treaty. The estrangement lasted many decades as New Zealand parted ways not only with the United States but also neighboring Australia to pursue a nonaligned foreign policy.

Relations began to thaw in 2010, when New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's government signed the Wellington Declaration, which called for elevated strategic engagement and practical cooperation with the United States in the Pacific. Two years later, the two countries followed up with the Washington Declaration, which specifically strengthened defense cooperation and lifted a Reagan-era ban on New Zealand warships in U.S. ports—while leaving Wellington's nuclear-free zone intact.

The meeting between Wellington and Washington was the latest example of Beijing's behavior in the region driving countries into Washington's welcoming arms.

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The rapprochement also survived the transition back to a Labour Party prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. In fact, the Ardern administration doubled down on the new policy. In 2022, Ardern became the first New Zealand prime minister to attend a NATO summit. Her Labour successor, Chris Hipkins, did so again in 2023. At these summits, New Zealand's leaders expressed serious concerns about not only Russia but China as well, with Ardern in 2022 stating: “China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms. Here, we must respond to the actions we see.”

Criticizing Beijing is a new tactic in New Zealand's playbook. In 2008, the two countries signed a free trade agreement—Beijing's first with a Western state. Since then, New Zealand has generally focused on business ties while ignoring or minimizing China's worsening repression at home and rising assertiveness abroad. To its ostensible Western allies, Wellington's “supine” attitude toward China was unnerving. In 2018, a Canadian government report called New Zealand the “soft underbelly” of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, which also includes Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States.

Wellington might have continued on this course, were it not for Beijing's own actions that made it think twice about engaging—a clear trend that most recently pushed the Philippines to seek closer military relations with Japan and the United States. In New Zealand, it was the discovery of widespread Chinese political interference in the 2017 national elections that began to shift the China narrative from opportunity to concern. It also turned out that a Chinese-born member of the New Zealand Parliament until 2020, Jian Yang, who sat on the foreign affairs, defense, and trade committee, was not only once a member of the Chinese Communist Party but also worked as a trainer of People's Liberation Army spies. These incidents, as well as Beijing's turn to bullying smaller countries in the region, awakened New Zealand to the potential geostrategic threat posed by China, including in its own neighborhood.

These developments prompted Ardern to go against the grain of her country's dovish China policy. In May 2022, New Zealand became a founding member of the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—a limited policy that seeks to enhance trade and investment relations among friendly countries, not including China, while stopping short of being an actual free trade agreement. Addressing China directly, Ardern and Biden agreed in Washington that “the United States and New Zealand share a concern that the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries.” A month later, New Zealand also joined the Biden administration's Partners in the Blue Pacific—a group of countries coordinating on Pacific islands strategy, including Australia, Britain, and Japan.

Wellington's harder line on China now permeates the government. In July 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a new strategic foreign-policy assessment that cited Beijing's growing assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific region as the “primary driver of strategic competition,” adding that the “risk of a shift in the strategic balance in the Pacific is now a present and serious concern in the region.” One month later, Wellington released a first-ever National Security Strategy, arguing that Beijing has become “more assertive and more willing to challenge existing international rules and norms.” A simultaneously released defense strategy implied increased defense spending to meet the emerging China threat.

More recently, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his conservative coalition government, elected in October 2023, are sending strong signals that they plan to stay on this track, in spite of previously promoting China-friendly policies. The appointment of Peters as foreign minister, for example, does not bode well for Beijing. In 2018, Peters was the mastermind behind Wellington's Pacific reset strategy designed to counter Beijing's growing clout in the Pacific islands region. In a recent speech, Peters questioned the very basis of Wellington's foreign policy: progressivism and nonalignment. While this policy has played especially well in the postcolonial, post–Cold War Pacific islands region, Peters seems intent on trading it in for aligning New Zealand in great-power competition against China.

Specifically, Peters has called for Wellington to elevate its role in Five Eyes, the Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) security pact, and NATO. AUKUS could soon see New Zealand cooperating on nonnuclear security topics, including cyberwar, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, and others. On his first overseas visit in Australia, Luxon strongly suggested that Wellington was moving forward on AUKUS cooperation. Defense Minister Judith Collins has been more circumspect on AUKUS, but her recent contacts with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have deepened the intrigue.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his conservative coalition government are sending strong signals that they plan to stay on track, in spite of previously promoting China-friendly policies.

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Peters also confirmed this month that New Zealand is pursuing a formal partnership program with NATO. If the agreement is concluded before Luxon's participation in the NATO summit this summer, it would be another monumental shift in Wellington's foreign policy away from nonalignment and toward integration with other democratic nations.

From a U.S. perspective, it is easy to get overly excited by these developments and conclude that a restored ANZUS alliance is near. But New Zealand and the United States still seem far apart on restoring a formal alliance, and there have been no public indications that any such step is afoot. A signal of this magnitude to China that New Zealand is siding against it is probably a bridge too far for Wellington, which still seeks to maintain a healthy economic relationship with Beijing and not endanger economic growth.

Still, Wellington's strategic pivot is good news for Washington and its allies—even if it is still unclear how, exactly, New Zealand's pivot will support concrete U.S. objectives in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. However, the United States should temper its expectations: New Zealand is likely to continue to preserve productive relations with China while it emphasizes the importance of stronger security ties with Washington.

Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, and a former daily intelligence briefer to the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.