Close neighbours drift apart on foreign policy

By Kyaw Kyaw Aung

Jacinda Ardern
NZ PM Ardern

Recently, A-League Memes, an unofficial Australian football fans–run Facebook page, joked about “the weird neighbour across the ditch.” It was referring to the New Zealand footballers (All Whites), who later lost a match against Peru [and won’t compete in 2018 World Cup]. The Australian footballers had already qualified for the football’s biggest competition earlier in the week. Like fates of the two football teams, the foreign policies of Wellington and Canberra seem to split apart after Jacinda Ardern became NZ’s 40th prime minister last month.

The recent split in the Trans-Tasman foreign policies started a few weeks before the NZ General Election in September. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop angrily blamed Jacinda Ardern’s NZ Labour Party, for making public her colleague (the then-Australian Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s) Kiwi dual citizenship.  (The Australian constitution prohibits dual nationals from sitting in parliament. Barnaby Joyce’s father was a New Zealander, and Joyce had inherited dual nationality from his father. That meant he was not eligible to sit in parliament.)

A month later, negotiations between political parties following an inconclusive election outcome made Jacinda Ardern the third female PM of New Zealand. The NZ Labour Party has come into power in coalition with NZ First Party. NZ Greens and Labour also signed supply and confidence agreement. (This means that the Greens will support the government to get the budget passed and support the government in the event of a no confidence motion.) Labour, NZ First and Greens are the trio of parties that now have a majority in the Parliament of New Zealand.


Land of the Long White Cloud

Australia is the first destination on the expanding list of PM Ardern’s state visits. The stated reason for the visit was: for the two governments to compare notes ahead of a series of meetings of heads of state/government in Asia. This is unsurprising, given the close Anzac ties. In the words of a former Australian PM, Julia Gillard, Australia and NZ are “family.” Coincidently and aptly, Gillard made this assertion during her address to the NZ Parliament on a state official visit.

Indeed, the two countries share similar histories, identities, and cultures – at every level from grassroots to the highest political offices. However, the Ardern-Turnbull meeting had a different tone to the meetings between the former New Zealand PM John Key and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. On a personal level, the PMs Ardern and Turnbull probably won’t have what the media dubbed a ‘bromance’ between John Key and his counterparts in Australia.

Jacinda politely declined Australian PM’s invitation to have a kayaking outing together like Key and Turnbull did. In her official capacity, PM Ardern is by far the most assertive on contentious issues such as the rights of Kiwis living in Australia and the ‘Regional Processing Centre’ in Papua New Guinea (where Australia has about 600 refugees living on Manus Island). In Canberra and elsewhere, she told the media that if Australia limits resident New Zealanders’ access to university education in Australia, her government will respond in kind.

On the latter issue, she reiterated NZ’s offer to resettle 150 refugee claimants currently detained by Australia in PNG. It came with stronger criticism on Australian policy on irregular migration compared to her predecessor’s.

International trade is another area where Australian and NZ foreign policies will likely be different. Propped up by the Greens and NZ First, the Labour government in Wellington will likely get on the currently fashionable protectionist bandwagon. After all, the pro-free trade National Party has been in power for the last nine years in New Zealand.

Labour is a centre-left party. The main political plank of NZ First – led by Winston Peters, a veteran in NZ politics, is opposition to free inflow of foreign capital and labour. Meanwhile, the Greens add voices of sustainability and ethics to Wellington’s foreign policies, seen in support for multilateral environmental agreements and for refugees in PNG. Already, the NZ Parliament is on track to limit foreign ownership of real estate properties.

On the other side of the Tasman, guided by centre-right policies, PM Turnbull’s government will probably continue to favour free trade and corporate interests. Although unproven, the anti-immigration Australian politicians tend to point at backdoor entry of immigrants from NZ.  In refusing NZ’s offer to resettle some of its detained irregular migrants, Australia cite backdoor entry again. It would be a big stretch to say Turnbull government’s policies are environmentally friendly. By analogy, the two neighbours no longer have sleepovers at each other’s houses unlike in the ‘bromantic’ times when Key and Turnbull were prime ministers. But, they still cooperate as two “weird” yet (literally and figuratively) close neighbours.

As Turnbull remarked during Ardern’s state visit, the Trans-Tasman neighbours have “a shared future” and similar outlooks on the world. Security, trade, and cultural ties between the two countries are very much deep and heavily interwoven, despite their different foreign policy considerations in other areas.

In the 1980s, the intended trilateral ANZUS alliance fell apart because of NZ’s insistence on its nuclear-free status. Since then, NZ has been careful not to portray itself as a full-fledged member of the West. Put the foreign policy independence of NZ in Turnbull’s words, unlike Australia, NZ is not “joined at the hips with the United States” in international security affairs. This is perhaps the main difference in foreign and strategic policies between the otherwise two close Trans-Tasman neighbours.

This foreign policy stance of NZ has proved useful to Australia and the rest of the West. There are some recent examples. In Hanoi, Canada’s refusal to participate made TPP-11 (the TPP without USA) look untenable, initially. NZ bridged the gap between the interests of developed economies such as itself or Canada, and those of less advanced economies like Vietnam. TPP-11 is now to be ratified by signatories. Winston Peters might once again visit Pyongyang to serve as a relatively neutral broker between North Korea and the United States. He had done so as the then-Foreign Minister of NZ under Helen Clark’s prime ministership, a decade ago. These are presumably manifestations of NZ Foreign Ministry’s strategic aim of becoming a trusted partner in Asia-Pacific.

Such diplomatic manoeuvers are possible because of NZ staying at an arms’ length from the US, which is the main difference between Australia’s and NZ’s foreign policies. Australia has also benefitted from NZ’s warmer ties with states in Polynesia and Melanesia and the latter’s mediation between Australian and small-island neighbours. Whether one likes it or not, the Australian policy on irregular migrations have served NZ well. At the time of writing this article, Australia and NZ are reportedly screening refugees in PNG for resettlement in NZ as per NZ’s offer. This is yet another example of usefulness of two neighbours’ differences in policies, and cooperation in the oft-quoted Anzac spirit.

~ ~ ~ ~ Kyaw Kyaw Aung is a post grad student in international relations. He describes himself as a ’Burmese Kiwi’.

cropped photo of Kyaw

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