Jeremy Costa | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
The Trans-Tasman relationship between Australia and New Zealand is envied around the world for its enduring closeness and seeming complementarity. The country’s shared histories as former British colonies turn independent democracies feeds into the common assumption that the relationship is underpinned by “shared values”.
In what was reported as a rare moment of friction, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor’s recent comments that Australia should show more “respect” to China if it wants to avoid the further deterioration of the relationship was met with anger in Canberra.
O'Connor quickly clarified that "the Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia” and the dispute has been swept aside as a blip in the radar of an otherwise stable relationship.
But the comments reflect an uncomfortable reality; Australian and New Zealand foreign policy is steadily growing apart.
Former Foreign Minister Allan Gyngell’s observation that “Australia feels economically confident but strategically vulnerable while New Zealand feels strategically confident but economically vulnerable” underpins much of this divergence.
But clashes in the domestic priorities of the Ardern and Morrison governments, particularly regarding immigration, have exacerbated differences at a time when trans-tasman unity is crucial in a post-COVID-19 world that is "poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly".
China is central to the foreign policy of both Australia and New Zealand. While there are clear differences in the scope and scale of their respective relationships, both countries are reliant on Chinese markets.
On the surface, there is little evidence that policy differs greatly toward Beijing. Major decisions regarding 5G, foreign interference and Hong Kong have been markedly similar.
While policy differences have been negligible - rhetorically, the countries have struck decidedly different tones.
In 2018, when rumours emerged of Chinese efforts to construct a military base in Vanuatu, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull asserted that Australia “would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific Island countries and neighbours of ours”. New Zealand, meanwhile, plainly stated that they are “opposed to militarisation of the Pacific”.
In announcing new espionage legislation in 2017, Turnbull mentioned "disturbing reports about Chinese influence", comments which Beijing responded had “poisoned” the relationship. New Zealand has been more ambivalent - banning foreign political donations to address “the risk of foreign interference.”
Ultimately, New Zealand’s rhetorical restraint appears to have in part avoided it the kind of diplomatic backlash that has plagued Australia’s relationship with Beijing, despite relative policy parity on major issues.
Morrison’s comments that five-eyes counterparts must “stick together” and “align more” to combat a growing authoritarian challenge to the international order was interpreted by some commentators as a thinly veiled swipe at New Zealand’s approach to China.
What is clear is that the countries are walking (and talking) different paths on China - even if they may share many of the same concerns.
One of the principal theatres where Australian and New Zealand policy interests overlap is in the Pacific.
Both countries have engaged in major overhauls of their Pacific policy in recent years. New Zealand launched a ‘Pacific Reset’ in 2018 to address the “dizzying array of problems” in the region and mitigate challenges to its influence due to an increasingly contested strategic environment.
Wellington’s policy reset is driven primarily by its Pacific identity, leading to a greater emphasis on principles-based soft power, cultural diplomacy and people-to-people engagement strategies.
Australia’s Pacific Step-Up, however, is driven strongly by security imperatives and in particular, the growing strategic anxiety with which it views China’s influence in the region.
These differing motives drive fears that the policies are incompatible. Wellington likely views Australia’s securitised pacific policy with concern, particularly given it conflicts with the priorities it has established under its ‘reset’.
Both countries want a Pacific region that is politically stable and economically resilient, free from the influence of foreign powers. But they differ greatly in terms of policy implementation and seek to secure their interests and mitigate their concerns through alternative methods.
Recognising Structural Disparities
None of this is to say that Australia and New Zealand won’t remain strategic partners or close allies. But what the recent comments by New Zealand’s Trade Minister reveal is that the expectation of trans-tasman equivalency in the foreign policy space is a fallacy.
New Zealand will continue to prioritise the economic dimensions of its relationship with China and emphasise its shared identity with the Pacific. Australia, meanwhile, will much more loudly express its concerns about Chinese influence, and view the Pacific primarily through a strategic lens.
Australia and New Zealand do share interests and concerns in the region, but there are distinct structural differences in the societal and economic makeup of the two countries that should no longer be ignored.
Nevertheless, together the countries can be staunch defenders of democracy and human rights in a region that is critical in the fight against authoritarianism. A recent joint statement on Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang is demonstrative of the kind of moral authority that cross-tasman collaboration can command.
Structural differences will always exist but can be overcome by clear communication and sound diplomacy. The region is more safe, stable and prosperous when the countries are working with, not again each other.
Jeremy Costa is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs