New Zealand’s elections and the geopolitics of the Pacific

Introduction 

The convincing victory of Jacinda Ardern is important for more than just one reason. First, the 40 year-old Ardern’s centre-Left Labour party has won convincingly — securing 49% of the vote, and securing 64 seats in the 120 seat assembly. Ardern has delivered the biggest election victory for her party in half a century. The victory gives Ardern and her party the opportunity to form a single party government.  

Second, while there is often talk of a right-wing political discourse being dominant globally, it is important that a center-left leader has won. Many commentators of course would argue that New Zealand is a small country, with a small population of less than 5 million – and that not much should be read into the electoral result.

Third, Ardern’s successful handling of the Covid19 pandemic, along with other women leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen – has been acknowledged globally. A study published by the World Economic Forum and The Center for Economic and Policy Research makes this point and has cited some of the reasons for the success of the these leaders. The success has been attributed to the fact that all these leaders were quick to react to the crisis. 

Fourth, at a time when the world is becoming insular, the New Zealand PM has been firmly pitching for open immigration policies, has taken a strong stance vis-à-vis Islamophobia (something which leaders of other liberal democracies have failed to do), and repeatedly argued in favor of a more inclusive society. In March 2019, shootings at a Mosque in Christchurch by white supremacists had resulted in the killing of 50 people. Ardern, while expressing solidarity with members of the community, donned a head scarve, or hijab, and this gesture was appreciated. In her victory speech the New Zealand PM stated that the world is becoming increasingly more polarized and that “New Zealanders have shown that this is not who we are.” 

The New Zealand PM has her task cut out on issues related to the economy (the economy had shrunk by 12% in the second quarter thanks to the impact of the lockdown). Like other countries, there have been many job losses. Some of the sectors which have witnessed job losses, such as retail, hospitality, and tourism – employ women (according to some estimates a whopping 90% of people who have lost jobs are women). Some commentators also believe that the Labour government has not been able to deliver on key promises related to housing, child welfare, and the economy. There is also an argument that Ardern’s first tenure was not transformational, and after her win the expectations from her will be much higher.

Foreign Policy Challenges  

New Zealand, in spite of being a small country, is important in the context of foreign policy issues. There are two important dimensions: New Zealand’s ties with China, and as a part of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

As far as New Zealand’s ties with China are concerned, there are various layers to the bilateral relationship. Jacinda Ardern’s government has largely gone along with other 5 eye countries when it comes to the issue of allowing Huawei entry into New Zealand’s 5G network. On issues pertaining to Hong Kong, the Uygurs, and the South China Sea too, New Zealand has taken a firm stance vis-à-vis Beijing. After the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and it also made revisions with regard to its policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to Hong Kong, subjecting the city to the same as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

During her speech at the China-New Zealand Summit, Ardern said: 

As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law, the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.

Like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has also been taking cognizance of increasing political interference in its domestic politics, via governments, political parties, and universities. There has been bipartisan support for taking measures to check the same. Some policies have been introduced with regard to political donations as well as Foreign Direct Investment. 

At the same time, New Zealand has a close economic relationship with China and this is strong reiterated by figures. In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 33% of New Zealand’s dairy exports, over 40% of meat experts and contributed to 58.3% of international education earnings (it is estimated that in 2019, 87% of New Zealand’s service export earnings from China came from education-related travel and personal tourism).

While there has been a shift in New Zealand’s approach vis-à-vis China, officials have also repeatedly made the point, that it will not blindly toe any other country’s stance vis-à-vis China. 

CPTPP

Another important foreign policy component of New Zealand is as member of the 11-member CPTPP. Along with other countries, New Zealand worked towards keeping supply chains going in the midst of the pandemic. For instance in April, New Zealand sent a first plane load of essential supplies to Singapore. (This included commodities like lamb and beef which were sent by a chartered plane.)

New Zealand and other CPTPP members have also been working to resume essential travel, while Singapore opened a travel bubble with New Zealand on September 1, 2020 (which means that quarantine-free travel will be allowed). 

New Zealand and its neighbour Australia, another member of CPTPP, have opened an air bubble too (though this is one-way as yet only passengers from New Zealand can travel to Australia). The bubble currently is applicable only to two Australian states New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the election result is important not just in the context of domestic politics, but in sending a message that there is space for centrist and inclusive politics and that it is not necessary to have a Strong Man image cultivated by many right-wing leaders. It is also important to bear in mind that liberal democracies, which respect diversity, are in a far better position to provide an alternative narrative to that of China. Apart from this, while the shortcomings of globalization do need to be acknowledged and addressed, inward looking economic and immigration policies need to be firmly rejected.

New thorns in the Special Relationship: Persian, Chinese, and populist

The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.

Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.

It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).

In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.