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.

The Three T’s in a post-coronavirus world

As countries look to recover from the economic setback caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the three t’s – trade, travel, and technology – are likely to play an important role in getting the global economy back on the rails.

Trade

Even in the midst of the pandemic, countries have been in talks regarding Free Trade Agreements (FTA’s). The UK is seeking to sign an FTA with not just the US but also Japan, so as to buttress the bilateral economic relationship and get entry into the 11-member Comprehensive Partnership for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Vietnam’s national assembly also ratified an FTA with the European Union known as EUVFTA (European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement) on June 8, 2020. According to the FTA, the EU will lift 85% of its tariffs on Vietnamese exports, while the remaining tariffs will be removed over a period of 7 years. Vietnam on the other hand will lift nearly half (49%) of its import duties on EU goods, while the rest of the tariffs will be removed over a period of 10 years.

The CPTPP is also likely to expand in the near future. Japan is seeking to get Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines on board. Tokyo’s aim is to reduce dependence on China by creating an alternative set of supply chains through multilateral networks.

Technology

In recent weeks, there has also been a growing debate with regard to creating new technologies, so that the dependency upon Chinese technologies is reduced. One important step in this direction is the UK’s suggestion for creating an organisation, called D10, which consists of the original G7 countries plus India, South Korea, and Australia. The aim of the D10 is to provide alternative technologies so that dependence upon Chinese technologies is reduced.

At London Tech Week, a report titled “Future Tech Trade Strategy” was given by British Trade Secretary Elizabeth Russ. Russ spoke about a new £8 million initiative which would enable British companies to expand tech ties with Asia-Pacific countries, especially Japan and Singapore. British companies will also be assisted by tech experts stationed in its high commissions and embassies in these countries.

Travel

In recent days, the resumption of international air travel has also also been an important matter of discussion. Three members within the 11-member CPTPP – Japan, New Zealand, and Australia – have already been in talks for resuming air connectivity. Japan is also likely to ease its entry ban from countries like Vietnam and Thailand where Covid-19 cases have reduced.

Singapore, another member of the CPTPP, is also in talks with South Korea, Malaysia, and New Zealand for resumption of air connectivity. (Singapore Airlines and Silk Air have been flying passengers from select destinations in Australia and New Zealand to Singapore’s Changi Airport throughout the pandemic.)

China, too, has been seeking to revive air travel. While China has recently set up a travel corridor with South Korea, it has also signed an agreement with Singapore for reciprocal travel for essential purposes – business and official. Initially, this arrangement will be for 6 provinces – Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang (travellers will need to apply for a visa in advance, and get tested for the corona virus both before departing for China and after arriving there).

Vietnam, which removed its lockdown at the end of April and resumed domestic flights, is also reviving international travel with a few select countries, such as South Korea (South Korean students can enter the ASEAN country through a special permit).

The EU is seeking to resume air connectivity with non-EU countries by the 1st week of July (the EU has already opened travel within EU member states), and it is likely that air connectivity with countries considered low risk will also resume shortly.

The resumption of travel will of course be undertaken on a step-by-step basis. Japan, for instance, has indicated that it will open its air connectivity with other countries in stages; first for businessmen, then students, and finally tourists. What is fascinating to observe is that the narrative with regard to the three t’s is not being set by the West, it is being set by Asian countries. Even within Asia, it is not just a China-driven narrative. Japan is playing an important role and, from within ASEAN, it is not just Singapore but Vietnam as well which has emerged as an important stakeholder.

Conclusion

In a post-corona world there are likely to be a number of changes, with geopolitical and economic dynamics in Asia likely to witness a significant shift.

What is also interesting to note is that travel and technology – two of the three t’s – were broadly thought of as key ‘soft power’ tools prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Post the pandemic, there will be a strong ‘hard Power’ component to these two t’s. While in the context of travel, each country will be cautious with regard to opening up air travel, and stick to linkages with countries that have managed to control the corona virus; as far as technology is concerned, due to the rising tensions with China, the creation of alternative technologies is likely to be viewed as a security requirement (trade, the third t, had already acquired a strong strategic component even before the outbreak of the pandemic).

Multilateralism is alive and well in the Indo-Pacific

Introduction

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement, also known as CPTPP 11, consists of 11 member states (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).

The TPP agreement was a brain child of former US President Barack Obama. The main objective of the agreement was to bolster Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ vision, and it was signed in February 2016.

Significantly, one of the first decisions taken by US President Donald Trump upon his election was to withdraw from the agreement. The main reason cited by Trump for this decision was that the TPP agreement was not favourable towards US workers. During the Presidential campaign of 2016, Trump had repeatedly said that apart from leading to job losses of US workers, the agreement would undermine US independence.

In April 2018, Trump had stated that the US was willing to join the TPP if it was offered a better deal, but by then other countries which were part of the original TPP had moved on, and the CPTPP 11 came into force in the end of 2018 (after a majority of signatories, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore ratified the agreement).

How the agreement has enhanced trade linkages between member states

CPTPP 11 has helped in bolstering economic cooperation between a number of member states such as Japan, Canada, and Vietnam. During Shinzo Abe’s visit to Canada in 2019, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau made a mention of how the deal had enabled Canada to increase its exports threefold to Japan. Trudeau also stated that the deal had been beneficial for strengthening economic ties between Canada and Japan.

According to estimates, the agreement has also helped in bolstering trade not just between Vietnam and Japan, but also between Vietnam and Canada.

Efforts to keep supply chains intact

In the midst of the corona virus pandemic, CPTPP 11 member states like Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand have been working assiduously towards keeping supply chains intact.

Singapore has been exporting meat and medical products from New Zealand and has also been seeking to strengthen its economic ties with Japan in the midst of the pandemic. In April, several CPTPP 11 members — Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei — issued a joint statement along with Myanmar (a non-CPTPP 11 member) on the issue of opening trade lines, including air and sea freight.

Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, along with non-CPTPP 11 member South Korea, have also been exploring the possibility of resuming essential travel.

What is also interesting is the success of some of the CPTPP 11 member states in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, especially Vietnam and New Zealand. As of May 16, 2020, Vietnam recorded 318 coronavirus cases and did not register a single death. The ASEAN nation began to ease the lockdown in the end of April. As of May 16, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases in New Zealand was 1149, and number of deaths was 21 (New Zealand ended a 7 week lockdown on May 14, 2020).

Efforts to rope in new members into the partnership

After the coronavirus pandemic, more countries are likely to get on board with the CPTPP 11, including the United Kingdom. In Asia, Japan is also trying to get Malaysia and Thailand on board with the CPTPP 11. The main aim of Japan, which will chair the CPTPP 11 in 2021, in getting these countries on board is reducing its dependence upon China (Tokyo imports over 20% of its intermediate goods from China). Thailand could be an important addition to the CPTPP 11 because it has been relatively successful in dealing with the pandemic as of now, and apart from its economic relevance, Thailand has been working closely with several CPTPP 11 members in their endeavor to resume essential travel.

Conclusion

The CPTPP is thus important for a number of reasons. First, it is providing an alternative narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific (Japan’s desire to get new countries on board is a strong reiteration of the same).

Second, the CPTPP is a clear reiteration that globalization in a post-corona world is not likely to be driven by Washington and Beijing (many members of the partnership, such as Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, have an important role to play).

Third, it is an interesting instance of an arrangement where not all member states have similar political systems, but are bound by common economic interests.

In the post-corona world, the relevance of the CPTPP is likely to rise, and it remains to be seen how Beijing and Washington react to this.