'The world is bloody messy': PM delivers foreign policy speech

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is underlining New Zealand's commitment to maintaining "truly independent foreign policy", in a world that's "bloody messy".

Delivering a speech at an event hosted by the Lowy Institute - a prestigious Sydney-based foreign affairs think-tank - Ardern today discussed how New Zealand is managing its various economic and geopolitical relationships.

She had a few key messages, saying while New Zealand will stand in support of Ukraine, in the face of "illegal and unjustifiable" invasion from Russia, "fundamentally this is Russia's war".

"Let us not otherwise characterise this as a war of the west vs Russia. Or democracy vs autocracy. It is not," Ardern said.

"Nor should we naturally assume it is a demonstration of the inevitable trajectory in other areas of geostrategic contest," she said, likely referring to China taking a more aggressive approach towards foreign affairs.

"In the wake of the tensions we see rising including in our Indo-Pacific region, diplomacy must become the strongest tool and de-escalation the loudest call.

"We won't succeed, however, if those parties we seek to engage with are increasingly isolated and the region we inhabit becomes increasingly divided and polarised. We must not allow the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy to become an inevitable outcome for our region."

Ardern said this is one of the reasons New Zealand is intensifying its engagement with the Pacific and "economic architecture" would "build resilience" in the region.

She stressed the upcoming Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji is the "vehicle for addressing regional challenge".

"We see local security challenges being resolved locally, with Pacific Islands Forum Members' security being addressed first and foremost by the Forum family."

Ardern said it would be wrong to characterise China's engagement in the Pacific as "new".

"It would also be wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to 'pick sides.' These are democratic nations with their own sovereign right to determine their foreign policy engagements…Priorities should be set by the Pacific. They should be free from coercion."

Coming back to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ardern said, "In the face of global conflict and tension, we continue to position ourselves based on the principle of upholding the rules-based order through multilateral institutions. And when seeking solutions to issues, be it war or dispute, New Zealand will turn to these same institutions to act as mediator, and when necessary, as judge."

However, she noted the United Nations has failed to appropriately respond to the war in Ukraine because of the position taken by Russia in the Security Council.

"Here, when the system fails, we seek partnerships and approaches based on the second principle of our independent foreign policy – our values," Ardern said.

"A conviction that we have a moral responsibility to do our part to maintain the rules-based order. That regardless of whether a collective approach is possible, maintaining the basic values of human rights, gender equality, state sovereignty, climate action – that falls on each of us to defend and uphold."

Turning to the Pacific, Ardern said climate change must also be a "foreign policy priority".

"While we all have a concern, and rightly so, about any moves towards militarisation of our region, that must surely be matched by a concern for those who experience the violence of climate change."

Ardern noted New Zealand investment in climate change mitigation in the Pacific - "our home".

"And that makes you, our cousins. But more importantly, over many years, it has made you our friend.

"You are our second-largest trading partner. You are our only formal ally. You are our largest market for foreign direct investment. Forty per cent of arrivals into New Zealand in 2019 were from Australia. It's lucky we like you so much.

"We share our people, our problems and our solutions. In fact, when we look to our principles; co-operation, values and place – we naturally find you within them. We won't always agree, and nor should we. But it's true that in the messy world we live, friendship matters."

Ardern concluded: "In this messy world, still full of opportunities and optimism, I hope you will find us both, on our own terms, pulling in the same direction."

The last major speech by a New Zealand politician at the nonpartisan international policy group was in 2018, when then Foreign Minister Winston Peters outlined the "Pacific reset" approach.

Peters spoke then of building "resilience" in the Pacific and moving away from "donor/recipient interaction" and into "genuine, mature political partnerships".

Current Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has built on this approach, and Ardern has also spoken at length about respecting and encouraging the autonomy of Pacific nations as a core part of New Zealand's relations.

The backdrop to her speech includes rising geopolitical tensions in the Pacific, sparked by a security arrangement between the Solomon Islands and China at the start of the year.

Tensions have been further stoked as China toured the region seeking to drum up support for a broader security and trade agreement, which was ultimately turned down by Pacific countries, with the caveat that it would be discussed at the Pacific Islands Forum.

The United States has also entered the fray, conducting its own tour and seeking closer security ties with New Zealand and allies including the establishment of the Partners in the Blue Pacific.

Ardern's comments today set the scene for the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meetings in Fiji next week, where issues around China and climate change will really be thrashed out.

She will also talk to other Australian government ministers as a part of the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum, and has a formal bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

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