KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 342

New Zealand’s Indo-Pacific Challenge and Cooperation with the Republic of Korea

Roberto-Rabel Victoria University of Wellington Emeritus Professor
Roberto Rabel

Over the past three decades, New Zealand has worked actively with others to build a more integrated region based on respect for rules and norms that can accommodate the political diversity of the Asia-Pacific. The country has benefited from the evolution of a peaceful and increasingly prosperous region, fuelled economically by Chinese growth, stabilised militarily by American power and connected politically through ASEAN-centred mechanisms for regional dialogue. However, shifting geo-political dynamics and the contested reconceptualization of the Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific have presented major challenges for New Zealand, highlighting the importance of working more closely with like-minded partners such as the Republic of Korea.

Beginning in the 1990s, several key developments transformed New Zealand into a quintessential Asia-Pacific state. One was a positive and profitable relationship with China, now the country’s largest trading partner. At the same time, New Zealand revitalised its relationship with the United States in the 21st century after disagreements over nuclear issues in the 1980s that precipitated suspension of the American security guarantee to New Zealand under the ANZUS pact. New Zealand also maintained close relations with Australia and South Pacific partners, while pursuing wider regional engagement as an energetic supporter of Asia-Pacific multilateralism in economic, political and security spheres (ranging from APEC, the CPTPP and RCEP to ASEAN ‘centrality’). Its emerging Asia-Pacific identity was reinforced by a changing demographic mix at home, blending historic Maori, Pacific Island and European cultural legacies with more recently expanded Asian migrant communities (now over 15% of the national population). The country could thus engage with Asia without relinquishing either a South Pacific focus or links with Australia, the United States, Canada and Latin America’s Pacific Alliance states.

In recent years, a shifting equilibrium of power and growing geo-political competition have thrown into question the benign economic-security nexus and evolving rules-based order that underpinned the Asia-Pacific success story. Indeed, the rubric of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has eclipsed the Asia-Pacific as a new ordering framework for the region. While dismissed by Beijing as ‘foam on the ocean’, the concept has gained visible traction in recent years, with the Quad grouping of India, the United States, Japan and Australia as perhaps its most prominent manifestation. So-called Indo-Pacific strategies have proliferated within and beyond the region, the most recent being that of the Republic of Korea in 2022. Even ASEAN felt obliged to acknowledge the concept with its 2019 Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Wellington moved cautiously at first in acknowledging the shift to a more complex and contested Indo-Pacific context. A Strategic Defence Policy Statement in 2018 marked an early step, with sharper language about China and Russia than hitherto seen in policy documents in the 21st century. Jacinda Adern’s Labour-led government then launched a “Pacific Reset” to bolster already close partnerships with the small states of its Pacific neighbourhood, prompted in part as a response to growing Chinese influence there. But formal public affirmation of New Zealand’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific concept did not come until 2021 in Ardern’s keynote speech to a New Zealand Institute of International Affairs conference.

Since then, New Zealand has responded firmly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite a longstanding policy of only acting on UN-endorsed sanctions, the government moved quickly with strong bipartisan support in 2022 to pass a Russian Sanctions Act and provide military, economic and humanitarian support to Ukraine. New Zealand has since also attended NATO summits as one of its four Indo-Pacific partners alongside Australia, South Korea and Japan.

In 2023, New Zealand’s security and foreign policy agencies released a series of strategic documents, including an inaugural National Security Strategy.

These documents are all framed in the context of responding to three overarching shifts in the international strategic environment, as summarised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment: ‘Navigating a shifting world’:

‘1) A shift from rules to power – a shift towards a “multipolar world”, characterized by a period in which rules are more contested and relative power between states assumes a greater role in shaping international affairs;

2) A shift from economics to security – a shift in which economic relationships are reassessed in light of increased military competition in a more securitised and less stable world; and

3) A shift from efficiency to resilience – a shift in the drivers of economic behaviour, where building greater resilience and addressing pressing social and sustainability issues become more prominent.’

These tectonic shifts in the regional and global environment also framed the Ministry of Defence’s Policy and Strategy Statement in August 2023.As Minister of Defence Andrew Little noted: ‘In 2023 we do not live in a benign strategic environment. New Zealand is facing more geostrategic challenges than we have had in decades — climate change, terrorism, cyberattacks, transnational crime, mis and disinformation, and competition in our region which, up until recently, we thought was protected by its remoteness.’ Little’s words effectively upended a memorable statement from one of his own former Labour Party leaders, Helen Clark who had declared in 2000 that New Zealand enjoyed an ‘incredibly benign strategic environment’—a mantra that underpinned the country’s golden Asia-Pacific age. He crossed swords again with his former leader when commenting on AUKUS, the new arrangement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom entailing Canberra’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines. While stressing that New Zealand had no interest in the nuclear aspects of the arrangement, Little left open the possibility of involvement in ‘Pillar 2’ of AUKUS, involving advanced technological cooperation—much to Clark’s public consternation.

In October 2023, Labour lost power in the New Zealand general election. After some months of negotiations, a centre-right coalition of three parties led by the National Party took office in December 2023. While the precise contours of foreign and defence policies under the new administration remain to be fleshed out, the general direction of New Zealand’s response to its Indo-Pacific challenge is unlikely to change. In fact, there is the prospect of increased defence spending, closer engagement with AUKUS and more robust alignment in general with democratic partners in the region. Early statements by incoming Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who has held the position twice before, certainly suggest this will be the trajectory—as have comments by the new Minister of Defence, Judith Collins, a former National Party leader. However, as was the case for the Labour-led governments that were in power since 2017, external factors will have a decisive impact on the exact policies that evolve in the coming years.

What then are the implications of New Zealand’s response to its Indo-Pacific challenges for relations with the Republic of Korea?

First, it is important to recall that the two countries have been security partners for over 70 years since the time of the Korean War. The New Zealand Defence Force’s current contribution of 12 soldiers to the United Nations Command in South Korea is second only to the United States in size. From 2018 to 2021, Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft were deployed to help detect maritime violations of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. The two countries cooperate regularly through military exercises, reciprocal ship visits and defence discussions.

There is also a history of burgeoning political and economic links since diplomatic relations were established in 1962. South Korea is now New Zealand’s fifth largest trade partner. There is a thriving Korean diaspora of over 35,000, amounting to around 0.75% of the New Zealand population. The new government includes Melissa Lee as Minister for Economic Development and Minister for Ethnic Communities, who when first elected to the New Zealand Parliament in 2008 became the first Korean woman to hold office in a national legislature outside of Korea.

Notwithstanding the longstanding amity, cooperation and people-to-people links between New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, there is more scope to work together in bilateral, mini-lateral and multilateral settings in responding to shared Indo-Pacific challenges. While like-mindedness is habitually referenced when Korean and New Zealand political leaders meet, it needs to be leveraged more purposefully. The Republic of Korea’s 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy and recent New Zealand strategic documents are well aligned in general intent. But more needs to be done in both countries to ensure clear ownership by government and non-governmental bodies to complement what happens organically though economic activities in bilateral political and security spheres. For example, there is ample opportunity for more regular Track II dialogues between New Zealand and Korean entities, as well as for funding more targeted and regular exchanges of scholars and students.

There may be even more scope for thinking about how to cooperate more effectively in mini-lateral and multilateral settings. An obvious mini-lateral setting with such potential is to reflect more seriously on what NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners could do together—an initiative which New Zealand and South Korea could lead. It is also worth considering what the two states can do together with fellow regional democracies, especially in ASEAN-centred fora such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus platform. In such settings, it is imperative that democracies work together to uphold general rules-based frameworks that can also accommodate constructive relations with unlike-minded countries to avoid conflict in a very politically diverse region. After all, one of the most durable successes of the Asia-Pacific age was to transcend the tense ideological competition that characterised the Cold War through a focus on practical economic cooperation between often unlike-minded countries, with ASEAN-centred dialogues providing a mechanism to nurture the evolution of a loosely rules-based environment for managing ideological differences between diverse states.

On all levels, there is a palpable need for ownership of joint initiatives that mobilise the agency of small and middle powers. On the one hand, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea must heed the limits of what they can achieve bilaterally to address the challenges of the dawning Indo-Pacific age.  On the other hand, they must reflect carefully on how like-mindedness can be leveraged to bolster shared values in multilateral settings while modelling a healthy tolerance in relations with unlike-minded states to sustain the momentum for peace and prosperity that characterised the Asia-Pacific at its height—but adapted to a more challenging Indo-Pacific context.

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). From 2006 to 2016, he led VUW’s internationalisation strategies and activities as Pro Vice-Chancellor (International). He served in 2017 as Establishment Director for the Southeast Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence. Since then, he has taught in International Relations at VUW and at the University of Warsaw in Poland. Professor Rabel holds a BA Honours degree in History and International Politics from VUW and a PhD in History from Duke University, where he studied as a Fulbright Scholar. From 1986 to 2006, Professor Rabel taught in the History Department and then held management roles at the University of Otago. His publications include New Zealand and the Vietnam War: Politics and Diplomacy (2005). He was National Vice-President of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs from 2009 to 2021. Professor Rabel holds a Gold Cross of Merit and a “Bene Merito” award for services to Poland abroad from the Polish Government.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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