Prime Minister's Speech to NZIIA Annual Conference

Prime Minister

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, ata mārie, tēnā koutou katoa.

It’s a great pleasure to attend an event on such an important topic as New Zealand’s future in the Indo-Pacific region.

Thank you to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs for bringing this hui together.

I am encouraged to see so many young New Zealanders present.

But I’m also not surprised. As a high school student, I was fascinated by global politics. And at university, it wasn’t domestic politics I primarily studied – it was international relations. 


In fact, I am not sure I have shared this with MFAT before, but as a student at Waikato University I recall one day seeing a flyer advertising the fact that representatives from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be on campus as part of their graduate recruitment programme. I took down the details and when the day arrived, I joined literally hundreds of others as we piled into a fairly packed lecture theatre to hear about what it took to be a diplomat. 


This was some years ago, but while I can’t recall all that was said, I do recall two very important words – double degree. I walked out of there and decided that the entry criteria were a little too high for me. Apparently, I didn’t apply that same logic for any of the roles I have taken on since.

Over the years it has struck me though, how interested not just our young people, but our nation is in the politics and decision making of others.  It is easy to assume that all countries would take the level of interest we do in global affairs – but I can tell you that in my experience, they don’t. How many other countries would for instance, factor in the timing of another country’s election in relation to our own? I am still convinced that the last two American elections have probably captured people’s attention to the same degree, if not more, than our own have.

I can think of two reasons why this level of global interest persists in New Zealand. The first is size. We have an acute sense of our place in the world. But the second, is that we have all too often experienced the impact of others’ decisions on us; the testing of nuclear weapons, dramatic changes in economic policy, war. 


We may be far from others, but we are not, and have never been, isolated from the impacts of global politics.  And you can see this acute sense of self and others in the fundamentals of New Zealand’s foreign policy.  


Many of our current settings were established by Prime Minister Fraser, who was instrumental in establishing the United Nations under some of the most challenging international conditions imaginable. 


Peter Fraser recognised for instance that a lasting peace depended on a successful United Nations that collectively protected the sovereignty and independence of small countries.  


Those fundamentals remain, and they have been further reinforced by successive global challenges. 


We have entered an era of formidable environmental, health, and geopolitical difficulties. And in this era, each nation is faced with choices. We either ignore the impact our domestic decisions have on others and choose a path of isolationism and nationalism, or we take the view that concerted collective action is the necessary response. 


Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the environment in which we are making our foreign policy decisions has changed, but the values we use to make those decisions have not. 


I want to spend a bit of time today talking about that environment and how we steady our ship in what often feels like ever turbulent seas, with a particular focus on your area of interest – the Indo-Pacific. 


To start- I have a question for you. Where do you see our place in the world? 


If you were to ask me, I would give you a very literal answer. The Pacific. This is our home. It is the region we most squarely identify with. We very literally share a population base. 


That’s why, when we came into office, we focused immediately on lifting New Zealand’s engagement with the Pacific region, delivering greater investment and building long term partnerships. Looking forward, we are focused on long-term resilience, with a high degree of Pacific ownership and innovation. 


But the Pacific itself is an increasingly contested region. 


And so, to understand that complexity, and respond to it, we also see the Indo-Pacific as central to our interests.

We have embraced the concept of an Indo-Pacific as the wider home for New Zealand, locating Aotearoa in a larger ecosystem of nations and regions that includes East Asia, the Pacific, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim. 


Māori tūpuna (ancestors) voyaged through the region.  More recent waves of migration have further entrenched this connection.

It is a region where the rules-based international order has already supported huge improvements in human conditions, but is a region of deep diversity.   


The Indo-Pacific includes highly advanced economies Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and United States and Canada. 


China remains an engine of global growth and one of our most significant, but also one of our increasingly complex relationships

Australia – New Zealand’s indispensable partner and ally with a strong track record of contributing in the region – sits at the intersection of both the Indian and Pacific oceans. 


The rapidly growing and demographically young countries of ASEAN have 650 million people and a rapidly expanding middle class.

With all of this regional diversity, New Zealand is not alone in adopting an Indo-Pacific outlook.

The ten countries of ASEAN plus Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Germany have also referred to an Indo-Pacific region in reaction to more challenging geopolitics. 


But while we welcome the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, we do so based on the principles that have served New Zealand well and are consistent with our values. 


From New Zealand’s perspective, these fundamental principles include:

•    Respect for rules: consistency with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation and overflight

•    Openness: that the region is open for trade, investment, and the movement of people to support prosperity and open supply chains  

•    Inclusivity: that all countries in  the region can participate

•    That sovereignty is upheld and respected 

•    Transparency: that states are honest about their foreign policy objectives and initiatives beyond their borders


In our view, the Indo-Pacific region will need to conduct its affairs in accordance with these principles if it is to successfully address common challenges. 


Here, the principles of openness and inclusivity are especially key for New Zealand. Often language and geographic ‘frames’ are used as subtext, or a tool to exclude some nations from dialogue. Our success will depend on working with the widest possible set of partners.

And so, as a region, what are the challenges that lie ahead of us, and how can we use these principles that are core to New Zealand’s foreign policy approach to resolve them?

The natural place to start is COVID. 


New Zealand has been pleased to contribute to other countries’ COVID-19 responses, with an emphasis on the Pacific. 


That parts of the Pacific remain COVID-free has been an achievement. But economic impacts have been severe, nonetheless.

Vaccines are a critical tool needed by every government to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on their people and economy. As has been said many times – we will not be safe, till we are all safe. A singular focus on vaccinating our own populations with little regard to others is a recipe for variants, and for possibly undermining the very vaccines we are working so hard to provide. 


That’s one of the reasons we are working with our partners to support vaccine roll-outs to our Pacific neighbours, and others.

The COVAX Facility has commenced deliveries of our donation of 1.66 million doses.

Our contribution to COVAX of $17 million also means we are also supporting vaccination in the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

But more is required. Equitable access to vaccines for all countries requires global support. The COVAX Facility needs funding and donation of vaccine doses.

New Zealand has been an early mover and I welcome recent donations from others, including the G7’s commitment to provide 1 billion doses. 


Early in the pandemic we moved swiftly to support the Ejikman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta to help ensure Indonesia had the testing capability it needed to understand how the virus was spreading. 


When the pandemic intensified in Nepal, New Zealand moved quickly to release $1 million for UNICEF to support children and their families. 


In Viet Nam, both suffering from the economic shock from COVID and the collapse of tourism – our overseas development team pivoted to support training for women workers from the informal sector so they could support themselves and their families.   


In Timor-Leste the Royal New Zealand Air Force flew in much needed supplies of PPE as COVID started to break out.  


There are hundreds of similar stories from across our network of Embassies and High Commissions, where New Zealand has stepped up  to support the local COVID response.  


But now is the time to turn our individual action, into collective momentum.  That includes in our role as chair of APEC.

There are over 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the APEC region every single day.  And more than 80 million people lost their jobs across our economies last year, during the biggest economic contraction since the Second World War.

On Friday night I will chair the first ever extraordinary meeting of APEC Leaders.  This will be a unique opportunity to bring APEC Leaders together to discuss how to get the region through the health crisis and accelerate economic recovery in a way that lays the foundations for a better future.

That better future, must surely include better levels of preparedness for the risks we all face. That’s a challenge that extends beyond just APEC.

It is clear our global community was not adequately prepared for COVID-19. It is also clear that COVID-19 will not be the last global health risk that we face. 


I want to put on record again, New Zealand’s support for the ambitious and practical recommendations set out by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, co-chaired by Helen Clark. 


In keeping with our strong multilateral approach to global challenges, it is our intention to not just passively support these recommendations, but to actively engage on work-streams to develop a new pandemic Treaty; to improve global surveillance, validation and early response; and to strengthen the World Health Organisation. We see these areas of work as critical to our collective health and wellbeing, and a new frontier in which we believe New Zealand has a role to play alongside others. 


But COVID 19 has exposed other frailties we have all long been familiar with. 


As a trading nation, New Zealand has also focused on keeping markets and supply chains open during the pandemic, when for some governments there has been a temptation to turn inwards.

Working with partners like Australia and Singapore, and through APEC, New Zealand has led political efforts to support regional supply chains and free trade in essential goods and medicines. 


New Zealand is focused on protecting the multilateral trading system at a time when it is under stress. This means working to ensure that the World Trade Organisation remains well-functioning.  


New Zealand has also maintained momentum in our trade negotiations, concluding the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the China FTA upgrade.

And we continue to progress a full negotiating agenda, with the European Union and United Kingdom negotiations well-advanced, and an upgrade of our FTA with ASEAN under way. 


New Zealand actively encourages other economies to join the economic agreements we have initiated – including countries from outside the region. 


Last month we joined consensus on the formation of a working group to negotiate the UK’s accession to CPTPP. Other economies will be able to join CPTPP too. 


CPTPP is our highest quality agreement.  Those aspiring to join will have to be able to meet its high standards.

But before I roam too widely from a discussion on regional architecture, it would be remiss of me not to mention the importance of ASEAN.

ASEAN is a source of economic opportunity and diversified trading relationships. Our dialogue partner status with ASEAN has enabled some of our most important free trade agreements. And people from South East Asia have contributed richly to New Zealand.

Our relationship with ASEAN gives New Zealand a seat at the region’s top table for strategic discussions – the East Asia Summit, and is the convening body for regional diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. 


And the proof is in the pudding. ASEAN has helped keep members at peace with one another since the end of the Vietnam War.

Our partnership with ASEAN is also a case where New Zealand can pursue cooperation that is principled and pragmatic. The trajectory of political development in South East Asia is uneven, with democracy in retreat in some places and grave human rights abuses occurring around the region.

We are concerned for instance by the trampling of democracy by Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw.  We have expressed our condemnation of the coup and have taken steps to pressure Tatmadaw leaders towards the return to civilian government.

New Zealand sees it as critical that the regime releases those people arbitrarily detained since the coup, including foreign nationals and political prisoners. 


We also have serious concerns over the situation in the South China Sea, including artificial island building, continued militarisation, and activities which pose risks to freedom of navigation and overflight.  


Climate change is a grave threat to low lying South East Asian countries as well as to Pacific Island states.

The majority of global carbon dioxide emissions come from the Indo-Pacific region. 


Here, we have a role to play in ensuring our regional architecture is up to the challenge. 


Trade can be a key part of the climate solution, by removing barriers for environmentally-beneficial goods and services, and eliminating government subsidisation of fossil fuels. 


APEC trade ministers have agreed to consider options for ending new subsidies on fossil fuels.

And New Zealand is leading negotiations of the first-of-its-kind trade agreement - the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability. 


But it continues to be the case that New Zealand can best give effect to our foreign policy in partnership with others. Our independent foreign policy has never meant that we pursue our objectives on our own. We will increasingly prioritise and progress our interests through multilateral mechanisms but also through regional partnership.

I understand that later this morning, White House Asia Coordinator Kurt Campbell, who knows our region well, will address this meeting. 


We look forward to working with the Biden Administration on regional issues.  New Zealand’s relationship with the United States has deep roots, built over many decades of cooperation. We share values and have common interests in how the region operates.

To conclude, the Indo-Pacific is to some degree at an inflection point.

The forms of cooperation needed to overcome COVID-19 require countries to let go of narrow nationalistic approaches. A full economic recovery can only come after other countries vaccinate their populations and suppress the virus’ transmission.  


The post-Covid world will be a new era.

Our goal has to be to make it a better era, and if the Indo-Pacific is to successfully rise to the many challenges it faces, governments will need to re-commit to supporting an open and rules-based regional order; one that’s more sustainable and resilient.

And we must recommit to doing what we can, to encourage that change. 


We will do so in ways that are pragmatic, that advance our interests, and that are consistent with New Zealand’s values.   


We will do so in a variety of formats – through private diplomacy or through public statements on our terms, sometimes speaking out alone – at other times in concert with governments who share our concerns. 


An independent, principled foreign policy is a powerfully simple concept.

As Norman Kirk described it, “we want New Zealand’s foreign policy to express New Zealand’s ideals as well as reflect our national interests”.  


That means that while New Zealand must work with the region as it is, we are also clear on what we stand for: the rule of law, human dignity, and universal human rights. 


And that’s why we will encourage partners to continue on the pathway of democratic reform – just as New Zealand continues to improve its own political system – to protect the institutional enablers of democracy: free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, and freedom of assembly and association.

New Zealand ultimately aspires for the Indo-Pacific region to become freer and more open. As the region emerges from the pandemic, we hope it will be both.