An Albanese–Ardern alliance in the Pacific: A step forward?

Anna Powles and Joanne Wallis

2022-05-25

AUSTRALIA

DEFENCE AND SECURITY

This article first appeared in The Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative

Jacinda Australia
The election of a Labor government led by Anthony Albanese in Australia heralds the potential for even closer relations with its neighbouring Labour government, led by Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.

Ardern was among the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate Albanese. Ardern emphasised Australia’s importance to New Zealand, stating that ‘Australia is our most important partner, our only official ally and single economic market relationship, and I believe our countries will work even more closely together in these tumultuous times.’

The Pacific islands is a region in which Australia and New Zealand have long worked together. And the increasingly crowded and complex geopolitics of the region gives the two neighbours even greater impetus to look for ways to cooperate more closely.

Our ongoing research on how Australia and New Zealand work together in the Pacific has found that, alongside key areas of policy convergence like shared commitment to the international rules-based order, crisis management, Pacific regionalism and regional trade liberalisation, there have been critical divergences in Australia’s and New Zealand’s policies and practices, most notably on regional diplomacy, New Zealand’s Pacific identity as a domestic driver of foreign policy, climate change and nuclear disarmament.

Having Labor/Labour governments on both sides of the Tasman should help narrow some of these critical policy divergences. The Australian Labor Party’s plan to build a stronger Pacific family signals a commitment to climate leadership. This aligns with New Zealand’s Pacific resilience framework, which recognises the importance of climate action.

The ALP has also pledged to reform and expand Australia’s Pacific labour mobility programs and offer additional pathways for Pacific migration to Australia. This also aligns with New Zealand’s extensive Pacific labour mobility schemes and its policy of reserving a quota of spaces for Pacific people to permanently migrate to New Zealand each year.

The ALP also plans to expand Australia’s investments under its Pacific maritime security program, including increased support for aerial surveillance. New Zealand has long been a supporter of maritime domain awareness activities in the Pacific.

The ALP’s plan to increase development assistance to the Pacific by $525 million from 2022–23 to 2025–26 will also be welcomed by New Zealand, which has said it will focus on building economic security through economic integration and long-term resilience. The key will be ensuring that the allies’ economic development and integration policies complement each other.

It’s likely that New Zealand will also welcome the ALP’s proposed Australia Pacific defence school to provide training programs for Pacific defence and security forces, albeit with caution given the increasingly crowded security sector in the region.

There is also likely to be some convergence on nuclear disarmament, as the ALP has committed to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But this convergence won’t be a merger; the ALP has committed to continue the planned purchase of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS arrangement, which has caused tensions with New Zealand and several Pacific Island states.

The Solomon Islands–China security agreement and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s pending tour through the Pacific islands mean the region is going to be at the top of the new Australian government’s foreign policy agenda.

Australia’s other ally, the US, is also increasing its focus on the Pacific islands. And the upcoming announcement of the ‘partners for the Pacific’ initiative comprising the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and France, as well as other Quad plans, including on maritime surveillance, means that the region is becoming increasingly crowded—and that Australia has a lot of partners to balance.

While there is much alignment between the Australian and New Zealand government’s policies, New Zealand is going to have to actively position itself as a key partner for Australia in the region.

As we have argued, New Zealand needs to demonstrate to Australia—and, through Australia, to the US and other partners—that it can carry its share of the alliance burden. New Zealand should emphasise that in the Pacific islands, where development, non-traditional security challenges and personal relationships are critical, it contributes to its alliance with Australia in a range of ways in addition to traditional military capabilities. New Zealand has considerable soft power that allows it to exercise influence.

But the Solomon Islands–China security deal suggests there is still work for New Zealand to do to. Senior New Zealand diplomat Andrew Needs met with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in Honiara only 10 days before the draft security agreement circulated on social media. Yet New Zealand was, according to Defence Minister Peeni Henare, caught by surprise by the agreement. This has led to serious reflection in Wellington about the true depth of its partnership with Solomon Islands.

The news of the security agreement also triggered some soul-searching in Canberra. But the change of government offers a vital opportunity for a reset in how Australia conducts itself in the region. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s statement to the Pacific, recorded on her first day on the job, signalled change, as she emphasised listening to the Pacific and taking real action on climate change.

The change of government also opens space to pursue new opportunities for cooperation with New Zealand.

First, Australia and New Zealand should work together to provide more space for Pacific voices to participate in robust and nuanced public and private debate on geopolitical and other challenges. There’s a real risk that Pacific priorities and agendas will become increasingly overlooked and undermined in the noise and sound of the increasing focus of partners such as the US on the region.

Second, Australia and New Zealand need to facilitate better coordination between the greater number of partners now active in the Pacific islands. The large number of states that responded to the Tongan tsunami earlier this year illustrated the need to do this in relation to humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Greater coordination across a range of security initiatives is needed, as is coordination across the growing number of aid and development initiatives that partners are embarking upon.

Third, Australia and New Zealand could seek to expand existing coordination mechanisms to include Pacific island states, with opportunities to open the membership of the Pacific Quad (the Quadrilateral Defence Coordinating Group under which Australia, New Zealand, the US and France provide maritime surveillance support to the Pacific) and the FRANZ arrangement. This would elevate Pacific states to equal status with the partner countries involved in these initiatives, recognise that Pacific states are often best placed to take the lead (demonstrated by the localisation of disaster response after Cyclone Harold hit Vanuatu in 2020), and build capacity and strengthen collective security responses.

Fourth, Australia and New Zealand could work together to advance indigenous foreign policy approaches in the Pacific; this is at the heart of NZ Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s foreign policy and the ALP has committed to implementing a First Nations foreign policy.

Next year is the 80th anniversary of the opening of Australian and New Zealand diplomatic missions in each other’s countries and the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations agreement. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the alliance to each other and to the Pacific.

Anna Powles is a senior lecturer in international security at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. Joanne Wallis is a professor of international security in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. Image: James Allan/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in The Strategist An Albanese–Ardern alliance in the Pacific: A step forward? | The Strategist (aspistrategist.org.au)

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