The New Zealand general election is this Saturday, Oct. 17, and current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is poised to do well. Ardern’s center-left Labour Party has polled consistently far above her main rival, the center-right National party. One recent poll had Labour at 47 percent — and National at 32 percent. These polls reflect Ardern’s popularity.
New Zealand’s electoral system (the mixed member proportional system) means that the Labour Party may get close to winning a majority in parliament. New Zealand has traditionally had close ties with a small group of English-speaking countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia — all of which are more or less suspicious of China. These relationships might get a little more complicated in a new government.
Ardern’s government is an awkward political coalition
Ardern’s popularity may not be a surprise to outsiders. Her leadership during major crises including the covid-19 pandemic and a white supremacist attack that killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch has received regular praise in international media.
Many have argued that Ardern’s decision to go “fast and hard” and essentially close New Zealand’s borders helped ensure that the country had only 25 deaths and around 1,500 covid-19 cases so far this year. During the pandemic, a global survey found that 88 percent of New Zealanders backed Ardern’s approach to covid-19 and trust her government to make the right decision, outperforming many other G-7 leaders.
However, what’s less known is that Ardern’s party neither won a majority nor were the most popular party in the 2017 election. She leads an awkward coalition between the New Zealand First Party and the Green Party, which are on opposing ideological sides on many key issues. And the leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters, has remarkable influence over New Zealand’s foreign policy, serving as deputy prime minister and New Zealand’s foreign minister. Ron Marks, another New Zealand First member of parliament, is defense minister. During the past three years, Peters has sought to shift New Zealand closer to the U.S. and away from China.
This has caused friction with China. Earlier this year, Peters backed Taiwan’s desire to have observer status at the World Health Assembly, saying that “you’ve got to have every population in the world in the WHO if it’s to have any meaning.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned New Zealand’s suggestion, saying that: “The remarks on the Taiwan issue severely violate the one-China principle. We firmly reject and deplore it … we urge the New Zealand side to abide by the one-China principle and stop its wrong deeds and words on the Taiwan issue, so as to avoid undermining our relations.” Ultimately, China prevented Taiwan from having a seat at the World Health Assembly.
A new government may have a different foreign policy
The New Zealand First party has lost popularity: Most of the recent polls indicate they will get less than 5 percent of the vote, which is the threshold needed to be represented in parliament. If the polls are right, it is possible that the Labour Party may go into a coalition government with the Greens. So what would then happen to New Zealand’s foreign policy?
As prime minister, Ardern has emphasized kindness as an alternative to isolationism, rejection and racism. But she has not made explicit her international priorities for a second term, except for tackling climate change. The Labour Party have not yet released a detailed foreign policy manifesto, and foreign policy issues have not been hotly debated in the televised leaders’ debates. The Labour Party has less expertise on foreign policy than in previous terms, and it is not clear who would become foreign minister (Trade Minister David Parker is one potential candidate). The Green Party has not expressed interest in the top foreign policy role.
The new government might not always automatically side with its traditional allies in their disagreement with China. While New Zealand does have strong economic, political, cultural and intelligence links to Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, Ardern and Peters have regularly emphasized New Zealand’s independent and values-driven foreign policy.
China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner, and New Zealand does not want to jeopardize this relationship. New Zealand, for example, choose not to sign the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance statement condemning the National Security Law in Hong Kong but made its own separate statement, in a symbolic move. New Zealand subsequently suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
The next New Zealand government will want to maintain strong diplomatic relations with both the U.S. and China. In fact, Parker argued that New Zealand could be a bridge between the U.S. and China. Any future U.S. president will need to be aware that New Zealand — and many other countries — do not want to “choose” between the U.S. and China.
Nina Hall is an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS Europe and is based in Bologna. She is editor of a recently released book on New Zealand’s foreign policy, “Beyond These Shores, Aotearoa and the World.” (Bridget Williams Books, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @ninawth.