New Zealand’s tilt towards Southeast Asia: more than rhetoric?

The new New Zealand government has big plans to increase engagement with Southeast Asia. The question is whether the rhetoric matches the actual investments.

Six months into New Zealand’s centre-right coalition government, a new approach to Southeast Asia is taking shape.

Southeast Asia has long been important to New Zealand. Two-way trade with ASEAN is more than NZ$15 billion annually – making it the country’s fourth largest trading partner. New Zealand has deep security ties with Singapore and Malaysia through the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). It has long been an enthusiastic supporter of ASEAN-led regionalism.

However, if there has been a longstanding bipartisan interest in the region, there has been a clear shift in emphasis since Christopher Lacson’s coalition government took office in November 2023.

First, there is a commitment to seriously „step up” engagement with regional states. Prime Minister Lacson and Foreign Minister Winston Peters were both present He was highly critical of the previous Labor government Introspective focus during pandemic and its immediate aftermath. They accuse New Zealand ministers in the previous government of being slow to get back on track and of leaving the country relatively behind.

By any measure, the alliance has put its air miles where its mouth is. Peters, 79, hasn’t stopped traveling since his third term as foreign minister. In March, he visited Singapore and Indonesia (and India). In early June, he embarked on a four-nation tour of Vietnam. Malaysia, Philippines and Timor-Leste. In between, there have been many trips to the Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and America.

For his part, Prime Minister Lacson He went to Melbourne to meet Southeast Asian leaders On the sidelines of the Australia-ASEAN Special Summit. In March, he hosted his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Minh Chin. In April, he embarked on his first extended overseas trip to Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Ministers with trade, commerce, defense and climate change portfolios are also in the region. The overseas visit coincided with a significant increase in engagement with the ASEAN diplomatic corps in Wellington.

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Second, a new pragmatism is evident in the government’s approach. Former Foreign Minister He supported foreign policy Based on the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, it argued that Maori values ​​should underpin New Zealand’s engagement with the world. Those ideas certainly caught the attention of some in Southeast Asia, especially civil society observers in Malaysia and Indonesia when the minister visited. However, the values-based approach has unsettled some governments. Indonesia expressed concern about its focus on self-determination for its territorial integrity. Others found the Ardern government’s emphasis on 'dialogue and expansion’ frustrating in a region increasingly marked by coercion and sharp competition.

The Confederacy was quick to adopt what it described as clear-sighted „realism” which, he bluntly stated, „had been shared by no one else from the vague notions of native foreign policy of our predecessors.” A Explanatory document Nothing short of a „reset” of foreign policy drawn up for the incoming government at the end of last year. In Southeast Asia, it called for prioritizing six key relationships: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. While showing the ASEAN meetings, “Essential but no longer sufficient… we need to know [Southeast Asian states] Personally the best.”

Third, and related, New Zealand’s traditionally trade-focused approach to Southeast Asia is beginning to be balanced by other interests. Of course, the economic importance of the ASEAN bloc to New Zealand will not change. A for Luxon Specific attraction Singapore, with its success story, is eager to find ways to emulate its potential. The federation has announced a target to double exports and is looking at opportunities to develop trade ties and attract Southeast Asian investment.

… There is a commitment to seriously “accelerate” engagement with regional states. Both Prime Minister Lacson and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters have been highly critical of what they say was the previous Labor government’s introspective focus on the pandemic and its immediate aftermath.

However, a significant aspect of all recent visits has been attention to security issues.

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During Lacson’s visit to the Philippines, the two countries announced plans to conclude a Mutual Defense Logistics Agreement and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would facilitate the passage of New Zealand Defense Force ships and aircraft through the Philippines. New Zealand and Singapore Promised to 'elevate’ their existing improved partnershipSpeculation drawing that plans may exist Update the idea Basement of Singapore military aircraft in New Zealand. The Defense Minister spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June Judith Collins said „Building personal relationships with key partners in Southeast Asia is more important than ever.”

In this sense, progress in engagement with Southeast Asia can be seen as part of a broader emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. Lacson spoke of wanting to achieve „meaningful elevation” in the bilateral relationship with India, including growing security ties. In mid-June, he visited Japan, where security concerns were prominent and Lacson announced that For the first time, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship New Zealand will join Defense Force P-8 aircraft to enforce North Korea sanctions. In another break from the previous government’s approach, the coalition spoke in favorable terms about the minority. „Powerful Reasons to Engage in the New Zealand Practice” With Quad and AUKUS.

So far, the increased focus on Southeast Asia appears to have been well received, although some in the region are taking a 'wait and see’ approach to see if the undoubtedly positive start can be sustained. Lacson’s enthusiasm for a more active foreign policy is matched by a series of oscillating cuts to the public sector at home. There are the Departments of Defense and External Affairs Saved from the worst, but like Australia hopes to build a wider 'whole of government’ footprint in Southeast Asia, will surely struggle in the face of reduced budgets. Similarly, for all the talk about security issues, regional security partners should take a close look at New Zealand’s upcoming Defense Capability Plan to see if impressive rhetoric translates into real investment.

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2025 represents 50Th The year New Zealand became an ASEAN Dialogue Partner. This is likely to be a celebratory year for the relationship. But how loud the clamor from the region will be depends on how well Wellington can convince his allies that the new government’s promised action will be serious and, more importantly, lasting.

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