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The British High Commissioner believes the United Kingdom and New Zealand are “very much on the same page” when it comes to China, pushing back on speculation Aotearoa is splintering from one of its traditional partners.
New Zealand’s relationship with other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group – Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – was thrown into the spotlight in April after comments from Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Mahuta said Aotearoa is “uncomfortable” expanding the Five Eyes’ remit beyond security matters. It followed criticism of New Zealand for not joining some of the group’s statements, raising concerns about human rights abuses in China.
Despite later assurances from Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that New Zealand wasn’t seeking to move away from its traditional partners, the remarks set off a wave of speculation.
Several British editorials erroneously said New Zealand was leaving the Five Eyes, high-profile Brexiteer Nigel Farage said the group had “lost one of our closest and oldest allies“, while a Conservative MP accused Ardern of sucking up to China. Many comments ignored the fact New Zealand has repeatedly spoken out against issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, similarly to the UK.
In an interview with Newshub this week, British High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke said her impression was that Aotearoa and the UK still share the same values.
“The same view of the world, the importance of open societies and democracy, the importance of free and open trade, and I would say that we share the same analysis of the geopolitical trends playing out,” she told Newshub.
That’s true when examining China, Clarke said, with both New Zealand and the UK recognising the importance of co-operating with the Asian superpower on the likes of climate change. The countries are also clear about where “China’s actions don’t cohere with our values”.
“I think the UK and New Zealand are very, very much on the same page in that regard,” the High Commissioner told Newshub.
Clarke rejected there has been any recent splintering in the relationship between the UK and New Zealand on matters like China.
“I think we all choose how we transact our public diplomacy in our own way. But we have the closest possible dialogue, obviously lots of it in private, and we compare notes all the time, and I think that’s really important.”
Clarifying her Five Eyes comments later in April, Mahuta said it wasn’t necessary to invoke the group “as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues, in the human rights space for example”. New Zealand, the minister said, may look at other multilateral forums “to express our interests”.
Clarke told Newshub members of the Five Eyes work together on a range of challenges they all similarly face, but it’s not always under that group’s banner.
“I think it’s quite useful to maintain that distinction between Five Eyes, which is about intelligence, and then the areas where we just compare notes and coordinate,” she told Newshub.
“Often these are issues that we are all grappling with and wanting to compare notes and sometimes coordinate. But it’s not in any way an alliance as such. It’s just five countries that often have faced similar challenges and want to work together.”
She said every country has its own independent foreign policy and makes its own decisions about how to communicate its position.
“One of the things that both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister has said is that they’re keen to work with a range of different groupings,” she said. “We obviously think that’s a good thing. We would support that. We look forward to seeing how that goes in terms of convening other groups.”
In a major speech Clarke recently gave in Auckland, the High Commissioner spoke about the temptation “not to venture out in the dangerous oceans… to hunker down, and look after our own”.
But she believes looking after our own means “engaging internationally”.
In March, the British government released its ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the most comprehensive review of the nation’s foreign policy settings since the Cold War.
A key part of the document is the UK’s “Indo-Pacific tilt”, a move to engage more in the region which spans across the Pacific, south-east Asia and India, and is home to at least 1.7 million British citizens.
By 2030, the review suggests the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” will have moved eastwards towards the Indo-Pacific. As a result, the UK wants to strengthen its diplomatic and trading ties across nations in the area.
“New Zealand is an important partner in lots of that,” Clarke told Newshub.
“Whether that’s our aspiration to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), of which New Zealand is the depositary state, or whether it’s our application for ASEAN dialogue partner status, where New Zealand is very supportive, or the fact that we’ve opened three new High Commissions in the South Pacific over the past few years and New Zealand has strongly supported us there.”
In the review, it’s assessed that “China’s increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s”, a comment the High Commissioner echoed in her speech.
“We will work closely together with other like-minded countries in responding to the systemic challenge that China poses to our security, prosperity and values, while also co-operating on shared priorities such as trade and climate change,” Clarke said in April.
She told Newshub this week that New Zealand is “absolutely” playing its part, noting both countries have raised concerns about Xinjiang and suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong last July.
Another venture of the UK’s in the Indo-Pacific is the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the region. It will lead a carrier strike group, which will reportedly include New Zealand.
“That’s about strengthening relationships,” Clarke said. “It’s also about signalling what’s important in terms of things like freedom of navigation, international law, that sort of thing.
“I think the important thing is that we are clear about what is in our interests and what our values are and that we work with partners along those lines.”
Having the UK’s “scale and global heft” in this part of the world matters for New Zealand, she told Newshub.
As announced this week, New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor will head to the United Kingdom next month to progress Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.
Talks kicked off officially last June after Britain exited the European Union the January prior.
The United Kingdom is New Zealand’s sixth-largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth nearly $6 billion in 2019. Our main exports to the UK include meat, fruit, eggs, honey, wool and wine, while our main imports are vehicles, parts, machinery, equipment, and pharmaceutical
New Zealand wants to see tariffs removed, streamlined customs processes, the development of new ways of fostering digital trade and new approaches to address non-tariff barriers.
After fourth-round talks concluded, O’Connor last week said the two countries had “agreed to rapidly lift the tempo” of negotiations with more rounds scheduled for June and July.
Clarke told Newshub the FTA is hugely important to the UK.
“I think there is sometimes a sense that Brexit signalled a looking in,” she told Newshub.
“But actually, I think what you’re seeing is a sense that actually we are able to be more international now that we have the closest possible engagement and relationship with our European friends and neighbours and partners, but that actually we have that increased agility and freedom of manoeuvre in terms of our relationships around the world so that we now are able to do our own trade policy.”
While the framework of the agreement has been sorted, O’Connor said in his statement that he had emphasised to the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade “we still have a significant amount of work to ensure the market access outcomes, particularly for agriculture”.
Clarke acknowledged that agriculture is “always the most important thing” for New Zealand.
“The UK came forward with a commercially, very meaningful offer, a revised offer, and I think from our perspective, we are keen that this is a comprehensive trade agreement, that it’s a comprehensive negotiation,” she said.
“We’re very keen now to make more progress on the services side and look at the agreement as a whole. That’s what we’re focussed on and that’s where we’re looking to make more progress.”
But there’s also more to having an FTA than just economic benefits, Clarke said.
“It’s also about how we set the tone in terms of global trade policy, how we do something really innovative and interesting that sets the tone for trade policy going forward,” she said.
“There’s a strategic benefit to that, too. What can we do in this agreement on sustainability, for example? How do you use trade to advance other objectives, to tackle inequality?”
In her speech to the NZ China Council last month, Mahuta said there is value in economic diversity and not putting all eggs in one basket.
China is currently New Zealand’s largest trading partner with a whopping $33 billion of two-way trade in 2019. That economic reliance has led some to suggest New Zealand is beholden to the Asian nation, too scared to criticise it out of fear of trade repercussions.