By Geoffrey Miller
Opinion – New Zealand’s defence minister, Peeni Henare, has had a really busy first half of the yr.
In January, Henare was the face of New Zealand’s reduction effort to Tonga, following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano.
Then, from March onwards, Henare was typically concerned in Jacinda Ardern’s bulletins of army help for Ukraine.
The federal government initially determined to provide solely defensive (or ‘non-lethal’) gear to Kyiv, which took the type of physique armour, helmets and vests.
Cupboard initially declined a request by Henare for New Zealand to additionally provide ‘deadly assist’ weaponry to Ukraine – however that call was immediately reversed in early April.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, tensions between China and the West have additionally escalated within the Indo-Pacific. The elevated concentrate on ‘laborious safety’ in New Zealand’s neighbourhood has solely strengthened Henare’s function additional.
The defence minister’s first journey exterior New Zealand was to Fiji in late March. The end result was a ‘Assertion of Intent’ pledging stronger defence ties between Suva and Wellington. Every week later, New Zealand overseas minister Nanaia Mahuta herself travelled to Fiji to signal a broader ‘Duavata Partnership’, which promised ‘a brand new stage of expanded strategic cooperation’ between Suva and Wellington.
Given the next debate over China’s curiosity in its personal safety preparations with Pacific nations – particularly Solomon Islands – a bit of the Duavata Partnership that guarantees larger co-operation between Fiji and New Zealand on cybersecurity, defence and policing appears significantly important.
The Pacific stays the main focus throughout Henare’s present journey to Asia.
On Saturday, Henare spoke on a panel on ‘Local weather Safety and Inexperienced Defence’ on the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. After all, within the present geopolitical local weather, nothing is ever because it appears – and Henare’s contribution primarily served as simply one other alternative to emphasize the strategic significance of the Pacific area and justify New Zealand’s involvement.
If this wanted to be underlined, Henare obliged together with his opening remarks on the defence ministers’ summit, which included the road “our safety and well-being are intrinsically sure to the peace and stability of our area”.
Together with his first in-person multilateral assembly beneath his belt, Henare now heads to Seoul for a three-day bilateral go to.
Very similar to Jacinda Ardern’s choice to model her latest abroad journeys as ‘commerce missions’, the official reasoning given for Henare’s go to to South Korea in all probability understates its significance.
The federal government says the primary purpose for Henare’s journey is to examine on New Zealand troops deployed there and to acknowledge the contribution of the 6,000 New Zealand troopers who served within the Korean Battle.
This after all an necessary and worthy purpose for a go to – however it’s removed from the one one.
This yr marks the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic ties between Wellington and Seoul – and bilateral relations could also be about to step up a gear.
South Korea is New Zealand’s fifth-biggest export market, placing it behind solely China, Australia, the US and Japan in significance.
This statistic alone makes it overdue for a go to by a senior New Zealand minister.
However there may be extra to it than that.
Like New Zealand, South Korea is presently edging its overseas coverage in direction of the West.
That is even supposing China is South Korea’s greatest export market and two-way buying and selling accomplice – one other parallel with New Zealand, which sends 33 p.c of its exports to China.
Seoul has additionally had one other very specific purpose to maintain on good phrases with Beijing – the affect it holds over unpredictable Pyongyang. Already this yr, North Korea has undertaken a record-breaking variety of missile checks – 31 in complete – and seems to be extra harmful than ever.
Regardless of this, South Korea’s new President, Yoon Suk-yeol, is searching for to broaden his nation’s overseas coverage ambitions past the Korean peninsula, in a bid to turn out to be what he calls a ‘international pivotal state’.
Yoon, a conservative, narrowly received energy in South Korea’s presidential election held in March. However there have been indicators of adjustments even within the final days of the five-year time period of Yoon’s extra liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Moon initially tried to keep away from inserting its personal sanctions on Russia – a stance additionally initially taken by New Zealand – earlier than giving into stress and becoming a member of the sanctions membership a couple of days later.
The choice made South Korea considered one of solely a handful of Asian economies to impose sanctions on Russia – two of the others are Singapore and Japan, which Ardern herself visited on the finish of April.
The shift on sanctions made by Moon – who visited New Zealand in late 2018 – carefully echoed New Zealand’s personal new calculations. Jacinda Ardern was initially reluctant to impose sanctions to keep away from setting a precedent that would irritate China. However as she confronted stress domestically and from Western companions, Ardern quickly modified course and launched the groundbreaking Russia Sanctions Act.
The similarities don’t cease there.
Final month, Yoon hosted US President Joe Biden in Seoul and the pair issued a joint assertion which cited a number of delicate China-related points – such because the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait – in addition to the North Korea risk.
Not like New Zealand, South Korea is a staunch US ally – so it might sound outstanding that New Zealand’s personal latest joint assertion with the US – issued after Ardern met Biden within the White Home – is much more hawkish and detailed on the subject of criticism of China.
This can be a threat – Beijing has already verbally expressed disapproval at New Zealand’s obvious alignment with the US, and extra substantive repercussions might but emerge.
However for now, New Zealand and South Korea are forging broadly comparable overseas coverage paths that see them working extra carefully with different Western companions.
Neither nation is a member of the ‘Quad’ grouping of China hawks – an association involving Australia, India, Japan and the US – however each New Zealand and South Korea (together with Vietnam) have been a part of a trialled ‘Quad Plus’ format that would all the time be revived and expanded.
Furthermore, each New Zealand and South Korea are amongst simply 4 nations from the Indo-Pacific – the others are Australia and Japan – to be invited to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders’ summit in Spain on the finish of June.
Jacinda Ardern has but to formally verify her attendance on the Madrid assembly, however overseas minister Nanaia Mahuta already attended a NATO overseas ministers’ assembly just about in April.
NATO is clearly eager to convey New Zealand and South Korea – which it calls Asia-Pacific companions – extra carefully into its orbit.
Each Seoul and Wellington have additionally been eager to enroll to a brand new financial pillar that the US is setting as much as counter Chinese language affect.
The Indo-Pacific Financial Framework (IPEF) continues to be considerably nebulous on the subject of element.
However Wendy Cutler, a former US diplomat and commerce negotiator, suggests the IPEF’s ‘provide chain resilience’ part is perhaps drawn on to counter a Chinese language technique that the US calls ‘financial coercion’.
The coercion label basically refers to Beijing’s imposition of commerce punishments on nations that get offside with its wider overseas coverage goals.
Australia skilled the affect of commerce linkage when China imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine and barley exports in 2020, after then Prime Minister Scott Morrison known as for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
Peeni Henare’s three-day mission to South Korea is not any accident.
Seoul and Wellington is perhaps 10,000 kilometres aside.
However on the subject of geopolitical technique, New Zealand and South Korea have gotten nearer by the day.
*Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Mission’s worldwide analyst and writes on present New Zealand overseas coverage and associated geopolitical points. He has lived in Germany and the Center East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.
This story was first revealed on The Democracy Mission.