Political Roundup: Is Jacinda Ardern rethinking her China strategy?

By Geoffrey Miller

Is New Zealand suddenly softening its more pro-Western foreign policy – and its tougher line on China?

After months of inching towards the West, Jacinda Ardern’s set-piece speeches on her Europe trip last week seem to have been crafted to try and keep observers guessing.

At the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid, the New Zealand Prime Minister gave a speech that – in tone at least – seemed designed to evoke memories of the direction that her Labour predecessor David Lange had taken in the 1980s.

Lange built his foreign policy on the trinity of Labour’s nuclear-free policy of 1984, France’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985 and the US’s formal suspension of its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS Treaty in 1986.

At the outset of her three-minute speech to NATO leaders in Spain, Ardern said ‘New Zealand is not here to expand our military alliances. We are here to contribute to a world that lessens the need for anyone to call on them’.

The remarks vaguely recalled the fiery tone taken by Lange when New Zealand’s role with NATO came up at the Oxford Union debate in 1985: ‘This country, New Zealand, is not going to contribute to a nuclear alliance. This country, New Zealand, never has’.

Ardern followed up on her opening remarks by pointing to New Zealand’s ‘fiercely held independent foreign policy’ that she said should not be judged against ‘political ideology’.

The Prime Minister also rebuffed the idea that Russia’s war should be seen as a ‘as a war of the West vs Russia, or even democracy vs autocracy’.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

This particular line was surprising, given that it could easily be interpreted as a rebuke of US President Joe Biden.

After all, the US President made ‘the battle between democracy and autocracy’ a theme of his State of the Union and Warsaw speeches in March. He has also used similar framing elsewhere, such as when he organised the inaugural ‘Summit for Democracy’ last December, which Ardern herself attended.

Ardern’s pledge not to join a military alliance might seem like a significant concession to China, which tends to see the rise of new Western-led groupings in the Indo-Pacific as plots against it.

Of course, plenty of wriggle room remains on that front. Even if New Zealand were to join either of the two most hawkish groups – AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) or the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) – it would technically not be signing up to a formal defence alliance.

Ardern also seemed to take a softer approach when she spoke to Chatham House in London on Friday. Her prepared speech did include relatively mild criticism of China – which she called ‘assertive’ – but she managed to avoid mentioning China by name entirely during the much longer 40-minute Q&A session that followed.

This wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of her questioners: Ardern was quizzed twice on the rather sensitive matter of how New Zealand would respond if China invaded Taiwan.

In her answers, Ardern largely talked around the issue and generally preferred to bring the discussion back to Russia and Ukraine itself – far safer ground. Noting that she would be ‘loath to assume any particular trajectory’, she also deployed the strategic soundbites of ‘diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy’ and ‘dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’.

Did New Zealand effectively blink last week and return to its old, pre-Ukraine hedging strategy of satisfying the West one week – and China the next?

Time will tell, but Beijing will be far more interested in Ardern’s actions than her rhetoric.

After all, Ardern was invited to attend last week’s Madrid summit precisely because the alliance wanted Asia-Pacific countries standing alongside it when NATO called out China in its new ‘Strategic Concept’.

To that end, NATO’s new blueprint did not mince words. The line of ‘China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’ served as just the opener for several paragraphs of very specific and pointed critique of Beijing’s military, nuclear and economic policies.

And as if to underline New Zealand’s true stance, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta released a statement on Friday – while Ardern was still in Europe – that called out China for ‘continued erosion of rights, freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong’.

Moreover, the many and varied steps that New Zealand has taken this year to align itself more closely with the West remain.  Ardern’s foreign policy U-turn in March that saw New Zealand impose sanctions on Russia has been followed by the Prime Minister choosing to visit countries that are also clearly in the Western camp: Australia, Belgium, Japan, Singapore, Spain and the United States.

In its relations with the US, New Zealand has joined Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and – even more significantly – the new Partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP) initiative. The latter group – made up of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the US and the US – pledges to co-operate for ‘prosperity, resilience, and security in the Pacific’ and seems squarely aimed at countering China in the region.

In fact, as Richard Harman points out, the PBP is of such a delicate nature that Wellington has almost pretended it does not exist: a White House statement remains the only official announcement of New Zealand’s involvement.

The Partners in the Blue Pacific announcement came a month after Jacinda Ardern visited Joe Biden in the White House at the end of May, a key outcome of which was Wellington’s joint statement with Washington that itemised a long list of typical US complaints about China.

On the Pacific, Ardern has sided with the Western position that essentially seeks to keep China out of the region. In April, she said there was ‘no need’ for Solomon Islands to sign a security deal with China. Citing the Pacific Islands Forum’s Biketawa Declaration – a mutual regional support pledge signed after the Fiji coup in 2000 – Ardern expressed the view that the arrangement between Beijing and Honiara crossed a ‘very clear line’.

Since then, Ardern has also been careful to show unity with Canberra by repeating Australian lines of ‘our backyard’ and ‘Pacific family’ to describe New Zealand’s own relationship with the Pacific.

More broadly, the Prime Minister and her foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, have talked up the role of the Pacific Islands Forum – which Ardern described at Chatham House as ‘the place for discussing and determining regional security needs’.

Later this week, Nanaia Mahuta is scheduled to attend the Forum’s foreign ministers’ meeting in Fiji, which will be followed by Ardern’s participation in the leaders’ summit next week.

Effectively, the Pacific Islands Forum will be the West’s chance to make a counter offer to China’s multilateral ambitions for the region that foreign minister Wang Yi unveiled on his tour of the Pacific in May.

New Zealand’s Pacific-focused, post-Ukraine tilt towards the West might now seem locked in: China’s security deal with Solomon Islands that was first leaked in March and it subsequent even grander plans for the region arguably forced Wellington’s hand.

But that does not mean there is no room, or no time, or no reason for a major rethink.

Last week’s mediocre free trade deal with the EU – which gave New Zealand only minor gains in the crucial meat and dairy sectors that make up 40 percent of its exports – only underlined the simple fact that New Zealand needs China more than ever.

The EU and the US are unwilling – or unable – to put their money where their mouths are.

They are failing to match their rhetoric of solidarity with the kinds of high-quality trade deals that New Zealand would need as any kind of China substitute.

By contrast, China remains a willing and able buyer of a massive 33 per cent of New Zealand’s exports, especially of the butter, cheese and beef that the EU would rather exclude from the bloc on protectionist grounds.

For the foreseeable future, China will remain New Zealand’s biggest trading partner – by far.

There is no Plan B.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.

Further reading on international relations

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Prime Jacinda Ardern’s shifting sands on China, Europe foreign policy stand (paywalled)
Richard Harman: Ardern silent on new US Pacific deal (paywalled)
Newshub: Green MP Golriz Ghahraman calls for New Zealand not to go back to ‘Cold War allegiances’, focus on Asia-Pacific
Mike Houlahan (ODT): Ukraine war catalyst for NZ actions: Mahuta
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern reiterates concerns about China at Chatham House after embassy’s backlash
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Is NZ thinking too small about Australia? (paywalled)
George Block (Herald): Revealed – NZ Ministry of Defence buying recon drones in $100m project (paywalled)
Tom Peters (World socialist website): At NATO summit, New Zealand PM backs war with Russia, military build-up against China
1News: Geopolitical fears over China not driving EU trade deal – O’Connor
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): What to expect from the PM’s trip to Australia this week(paywalled)
Anneke Smith (RNZ): PM Jacinda Ardern on trade mission in Australia ahead of bilateral talks
Luke Malpass (Stuff): PM Jacinda Ardern to lead trade delegation to Australia this week
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): The frantic final moments before New Zealand and the EU agreed to a trade deal
Herald: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s bizarre handshaking moment with Boris Johnson goes viral
Neil Reid (Herald): Jacinda Ardern’s global tourism push: ‘We’re very keen to welcome visitors back’
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern inks deal to make it easier for Kiwis to travel and work in the UK
Herald: Editorial: EU trade deal – NZ’s hard-fought gains in US and Europe (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern reminisces on her London OE, but warns Britain of ‘growing unrest’ in Pacific

Other items of interest and importance today

Ian Powell (Stuff): The return of ‘Angry Andy’, the Health Minister who is denying the obvious
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): A fix, or more bureaucracy? The health system reforms that no-one seems to want
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Beyond broken: Why GPs fear for the future under Government health reforms
Elspeth Frascatore (Stuff): It’s a waiting game in our overloaded and under pressure hospitals
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Older people are dying more quickly in aged care with sector in crisis
Alex Spence (Herald): Sir Peter Gluckman warns of ‘overwhelming’ new pandemic of mental health problems in children and teens
Arihia Bennett (Stuff): New Māori Health Authority will help whānau seek treatment without fear of judgement
John Roughan (Herald): Change is an illusion with health restructure (paywalled)
1News: Doubts linger as Waitangi ceremony heralds new health authorities
Herald: Editorial: District health boards stood down (paywalled)
Mike Williams (Herald): Goodbye to health bureaucracy

Lana Hart (Stuff): Why New Zealand won’t follow the US lead on abortion
Damien Grant (Stuff): Abortion is the debate that can’t be resolved with reason
Paula Bennett (Herald): Robertson unfair to criticise Luxon over Roe v Wade abortion issue (paywalled)
Claire Trevett (Herald): Abortion furore as National and Labour prime election engines(paywalled)
Vera Alves (Herald): Why the Roe v Wade ruling is a cautionary tale for New Zealand
William Hewett (Newshub): Newshub national correspondent Patrick Gower says National leader Christopher Luxon’s views on abortion could cost him 2023 election
Sasha Borissenko (Herald): A history of abortion in NZ – and where to now? (paywalled)
Emma Vitz (Spinoff): How far would you have to travel for an abortion?
1News: Family First: ‘Nothing off the table’ on abortion in NZ
Steve Braunias (Herald): The secret diary of Christopher Luxon (paywalled)
Victor Billot (Newsroom): An Ode for .. Luxon, the ladies man

Grant Nelson (Stuff): The billions frittered on Covid support needs proper scrutiny
André Chumko (Stuff): Calls for Film Commission board chairperson to quit amid stalled conflict probe
Bruce Cotterill (Herald): When trust is lost, corruption gets a look-in (paywalled)

Rebecca Macfie (Listener/Herald): Families in crisis: The shameful truth about poverty in New Zealand (paywalled)
Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): Ardern’s low-key school food revolution
Laura Walters (Stuff): How to fix one of the world’s least equal education systems
Katarina Williams (Stuff): How school funding will work when outdated deciles are scrapped

Chris Trotter (Interest): Backwards and forwards
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Be a Goodfellow, won’t you, and go now
Hayden Munro (Herald): National’s strategy may fail Christopher Luxon, who trails Jacinda Ardern as preferred PM (paywalled)
Thomas Manch (Stuff): The three moments that shaped Deborah Hart’s focus on fairness
Newshub: NZ First MP Shane Jones has lighthearted spar with Newshub national correspondent Patrick Gower over Election 2023 prospects
Herald: NZ First leader Winston Peters quashes Brian Tamaki, Destiny Church merger rumours
Mike Houlahan (ODT): The electoral rhetoric has truly begun

Steven Cowan: Brand Ardern: Cracking up
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Ihumātao governance group formed but lacking consensus
Sapeer Mayron (Stuff): Crown appoints its representatives to the rōpu to decide on the future of Ihumātao

Kevin Norquay (Stuff): Slower, dearer, harder: Is New Zealand broken?
Duncan Garner (NBR): NZ urgently needs a population debate (paywalled)
John Weekes (Herald): ‘Dire’ staff shortage: NZ hotels offer guests discounts to clean their rooms
Herald: MindTheGap: Organisations unite to help reduce gender and ethnic pay gaps
Liam Dann (Herald): How much longer will high inflation pain last? (paywalled)
Dita De Boni (NBR): Smoke and mirrors in action as supermarkets ‘open’ wholesale(paywalled)
David Farrar: Almost all of Labour’s policies are making inflation worse

Damien Venuto (Herald): TVNZ-RNZ merger legislation and the dangerous sentence within
Colin Peacock (RNZ): New minister in charge at a pivotal media moment
Yvonne Tahana (1News): Matthew Tukaki’s job history not checked before Govt role
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): TVNZs weird character assassination of Matthew Tukaki
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): TVNZ admits it didn’t follow proper protocol when hiring Kamahl Santamaria

Bernard Hickey (Interest): Is the tide really going out on the ‘one-way bet’ housing market?
Miriam Bell (Stuff): Will the market ever turn in first home buyers’ favour?
Herald: Editorial: Choppy waters ahead for home-loan borrowers (paywalled)
Carmen Hall (Herald): Iwi Insights: Safety fears for social workers as emergency housing becomes ‘dumping ground’


  1. Ardern’s policy is not necessarily shifting. She has two different audiences to appease. On the one hand her “like minded traditional partners” in the Five Eyes states who are demanding her commitment to military confrontation with the Russian Federation and the PRC, and on the other the people of Aotearoa who expect an ostensibly “independent” foreign policy, departure from military alliances even if stopping short of strict neutrality, and a firm adherence to the letter and spirit of the non-nuclear policy.
    While Ardern’s popularity has been on the rise in Washington, London, Brussels and Canberra, in Aotearoa it is plummeting, and the ambiguity of the past few days is designed to calm the growing disquiet at home.
    New Zealanders, of course, face a dilemma. The Labour Party had made itself the standard bearer for foreign policies which had broad grass roots support, and actually originated as popular initiatives rather than from within the machinery of the colonialist system. Now the people of Aotearoa will have to look outside the colonialist political system for the implementation of policies which truly reflect their national identity. Meanwhile, Ardern has the unenviable task of persuading the people of Aotearoa that total subjection to the geo-political designs of the Five Eyes is a valid expression of a “fiercely independent foreign policy”.

  2. I see the wishy washy haven’t invented the plural for Aotearoa…..Possibly Aotearoainians or Aotearoaerers…New Zealanders is correct and of course the actual name of the country is New Zealand……Yes I Know Aotearoa is very trendy , touchy-feely….But it’s not correct….If we as a country officially change our name to Aotearoa so be it…Great……But it’s hard to take in the comments of someone who doesn’t use the proper name…Just saying….

    • The name for those who belong to the nation of Aotearoa, as distinct from the Realm of New Zealand, is tangata motu. “Aotearoexxxxs” is a bastardization of languages. We don’t need it.
      The names “Aotearoa” and “New Zealand” refer to two different entities. One is a free nation with mana motuhake. The other is a colonialist state. The construction “Aotearoa/New Zealand” is designed to deceive people into believing that they are one and the same. Unhelpful to say the least. So if you are a colonialist please continue to refer to yourself as a New Zealander, and the state which you uphold as New Zealand. Leave Aotearoa and tangata motu to us.

      • Maori, or at least Tuhoe, we knew the deference between a peasant and the colonial aristocracy who bought there commision and was ratchet to there own because there are many stories if you have the patience to lesson to the kaumatua (elders) recite the stories of how Maori used to hide on trees and watch them give there own men hiddings and generally send them into suicide missions.

        We’d often say to them from across the trenches that if they fired over our heads then we would fire over there heads.

        Point is I know the deference between a peasant and a colonialists.

        It is unnecessary to treat ordinary New Zealanders as if they are sacred cows who need who need to be shielded from the blade. It’s never been about that.

  3. Exactly Geoff. NZ has long been the “house boy” of the Anglophile 5 Eyes arrangement. USA and UK top tier, Canada and Australia deputy dogs, and NZ, lowly data collector, doormat and snitch.

  4. What does one think about when waiting in a green room about to read out a prepared speech to The UN? Can one even think properly when surrounded by such desolate views. Only myth and marram seem to raise a stire.

    Is it more likely that one stairs at the past and gaze into better days and founder memories back when one had more youth, purpose and excitement and less aches and pains in bones and muscles.

    I imagine when Jacinda sits in her aeroplane seat she sits and meditates a lot on her past. I’m also sure she’s interrupted periodically by Cindy fans screaming her name out across social media.

    Unfortunately for all those who love to scream out at Cindy these telepathic nonsense that they are just a small part of Jacinda Arderns very interesting life full of hard knocks she will need to recall if she is to survive the upcoming trade wars with China.

    The South Pacific Leaders Forum has no clear leader, no goals, no glory to which to leverage and an older, wiser, experienced, component and creative Jacinda must be ready.

    Jacinda does have the greatest challenge of all! Which is??? Baby sitting the future of The UN, nuclear disarmament and potentially the world.

    Luckily there are no better people better suited for nuclear disarmament than a New Zealand Prime Minister. Luckily we have one and we must aid her in her mission.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.