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US-New Zealand relations: Back in from the cold

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COMMENTS

5 November 2010 12:19

Matt Hill is a Lowy Institute intern in the Global Issues Program. A New Zealand Freyberg Scholar, he recently completed a Master's in Strategic Studies at the ANU.

It's been an interesting week for foreign policy across the Tasman. Tuesday saw the release of New Zealand’s first Defence White Paper in fifteen years, in which Wellington described itself as an '…engaged, active, and stalwart partner of the US.' Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally announced the Wellington Declaration, pledging heightened bilateral political, military, and economic coordination.

These events mark the formal acknowledgement of the quiet, sustained improvement US-New Zealand security ties alluded to by Justin Jones. While not an ally, New Zealand is once again clearly more than just a ‘friend’ of Washington.

These developments reflect greater mutual comfort in acknowledging common economic and security concerns. Wellington is deeply involved in supporting regional stability in the South Pacific, a region which Washington has until recently largely neglected. Kiwi forces have borne a significant burden in Afghanistan since 2002, heading both the Bamiyan PRT and contributing SAS special forces. Both Wellington and Washington have perennial interests in regional and global trade liberalisation. Coordination on disarmament and non-proliferation is strengthening.

Equally important to both parties are the relationships and leverage they bring to the table in the region. New Zealand’s engagement with ASEAN and ASEAN-centred regional forums has benefited Washington’s broader interest in maintaining an open Asian economic and political architecture.

Similarly, US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations greatly increases the scope of trade liberalisation for Wellington. Above all, there is the natural logic of closer relations implied by mutual partnerships with Australia. While far from heralding a restoration of ANZUS, both parties perceive benefits from potentially reconnecting elements of the strategic triangle, particularly with regards to intelligence sharing, joint training, and interoperability.

However, this week’s developments also reflect the limits to this shared strategic calculus. Andrew Butcher is correct that New Zealand, like Australia and the US, is increasingly focused on the impact on regional stability of ongoing changes in relative power in Asia, driven by China. However, this has not led Wellington to embrace an explicit concern for the maintenance of US primacy.

Indeed, since it was sent out into the strategic wilderness in the late 1980s, New Zealand has been forced to calibrate its worldview without assuming the beneficence of US regional and global dominance.

Pragmatically, Wellington recognises the necessity of a continued US presence in Asia as means of reducing the inclination of regional parties towards adventurism. Equally, however, there is a recognition, even in the Defence White Paper, that Beijing’s 'natural tendency' to assume greater regional influence is not without legitimacy.

As New Zealand’s ties to Asia have increased, so to has its desire to see regional powers adjust to the changing realities of power in order to avoid the kind of competitive dynamics that would turn fears of strategic confrontation into a self-fulfilling reality.

This outlook could be interpreted as another idiosyncratic kiwi attempt to square the circle of its foreign and economic policy interests. Perhaps more charitably, however, it might be perceived as a trans-Tasman echo of Hugh White’s argument for a ‘concert of powers’ in Asia. Regardless, this week's events represent an important pragmatic development in New Zealand foreign policy.

Photo by Flickr user Patersor, used under a Creative Commons license.

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