New Zealand’s new approach to China and the Pacific

New Zealand is using a Māori foreign policy to differentiate itself from other Western countries.

Interview
5 minute READ

Looking at New Zealand’s recent foreign policy, Bonnie Holster and Nicholas Ross Smith draw on their article in International Affairs to highlight the kaupapa Māori (collective Māori vision) infused into their relationships with China and the Pacific.


What is Māori foreign policy?

Nick: Māori foreign policy is the first attempt to sketch an idea of how tikanga Māori (Māori customary practices and behaviours) can be brought into foreign policy. Right now, it’s a more aspirational idea of what New Zealand’s foreign policy could be. Nanaia Mahuta, Aotearoa New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, said that this is a conscious effort to try and push New Zealand more towards a value-based foreign policy.

Foreign policy that recognizes Māori stems from The Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed between the British Crown and a number of iwi Māori (Māori tribes) in 1840 and now represents the foundational document of the New Zealand ‘nation’.

Today, we see a Māori foreign policy being used towards the Pacific, and surprisingly with China as well, but not with more conventional and older allies. But you could already identify something of a Māori foreign policy from New Zealand’s previous free trade agreements, the Treaty of Waitangi Exception Clauses and indigenous collaboration arrangements. Foreign policy is the last bastion that it has come into.

What values underpin New Zealand’s Māori foreign policy?

Bonnie: Mahuta identified four core values of this policy: manaakitanga; whanaungatanga; mahi tahi and kotahitanga; and kaitiakitanga.

Whanaungatanga in Māori means relation. Relationships really underpin Māori culture and societal structures.

Manaakitanga is hospitality. It’s recognizing the mana (prestige, authority) and the standing of those who you are trying to build a relationship with, and therefore reinforcing your own standing by being a good host.

Mahi tahi, or kotahitanga, means unity. In Māori culture the collective is really important. Whatever you do as an individual affects your family and the wider community.

Kaitiakitanga means guardian or steward. For instance, in Māori culture, there is a big emphasis on sustaining the natural world because we don’t own our land and are just its guardians and stewards. We look after the land for the next generations to come.

In Māori culture the collective is really important. Whatever you do as an individual affects your family and the wider community.

These values inform New Zealand’s foreign policy outlook in many ways. For example, with our neighbours in the Pacific region, that idea of manaakitanga means recognizing their sovereignty and respecting their mana, which is quite integral to the foreign policy approach that Minister Mahuta has been espousing.

Why has New Zealand shifted towards such a foreign policy?

Nick: The obvious answer is the appointment of Mahuta as Minister of Foreign Affairs because she comes from a very prominent Māori family who, for four generations, have been involved in Māori culture and rights.

Aotearoa New Zealand is part of a broader movement in terms of incorporating Indigenous perspectives into foreign policy.

But there has been a lot of incremental and evolutionary growth of not only the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, but also a deeper embrace of Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview – respect and acknowledgment of Māori customs and practices).

Bonnie: New Zealand was one of the four countries, along with Canada, Australia, and Chinese Taipei, that signed up to the Indigenous People’s Economic Cooperation and Trade arrangement created under the APEC event in 2021. It shows that Aotearoa New Zealand is part of a broader movement in terms of incorporating Indigenous perspectives into foreign policy.

How does New Zealand’s relationship with China fare compared to other Anglosphere countries?

Nick: It’s a product of necessity because New Zealand has a very important trading relationship with China. New Zealand was very proud of this, and when Helen Clark was prime minister, she highlighted that New Zealand was the first Western country to sign a free trade agreement with China.

Siding completely with the US against China is seen as totally against New Zealand’s value of being an independent power.

Since the 1950s, independence became embedded within New Zealand’s self-perception as an international actor. New Zealand should be bold enough to try and take independent stances and not entirely align itself with one bloc or one power. So, siding completely with the US against China is seen as totally against New Zealand’s value of being an independent power.

How has the Māori foreign policy impacted New Zealand’s relations with China and other countries in the Pacific?

Nick: New Zealand, for a long time, has been accused of being neo-colonial in its dealings with the Pacific. We often talked about it as our backyard and had a paternalistic tone.

In 2018, New Zealand launched the Pacific Reset policy to reconstruct its relationship with the region. That ties into the idea of bringing to the fore more Māori customs and practices. Although Pacific Island nations have all their own perspectives, there is significant cultural congruence, especially amongst Polynesian cultures.

In the early 2010s, there was emphasis on trying to build relations between the Māori people and China with the taniwha and Dragon framework – an allegory used by Mahuta to highlight basic cultural links between China and Māori. It was mainly used for cultural and business relations and to connect Māori people with Chinese people. Part of the reason is that the actual worldview of Te Ao Māori has some commonalities with the Confucian and Daoist ontologies that China often draws from.

Bonnie: The relational approach in Māori culture is also key for their relationship with China. When Māori are introducing themselves, they often give geographical indications of where they’re from. They’ll talk about the mountain or river where their tribe is based and the waka or the canoe that their people came over from Hawaii on.

The environment is also important for New Zealand’s relationships in the Pacific given climate change is heavily impacting this part of the world.

Those relationships to geographical markers and non-human things (i.e. mountains, lakes) are very important to our identity. This relationship-focused approach can strategically help New Zealand connect with China, as it differentiates us from the Anglosphere and is likely to work well with China, given the apparent relational underpinnings of their own diplomacy and international action.

The environment is also important for New Zealand’s relationships in the Pacific given climate change is heavily impacting this part of the world.

Nick: In early July when our Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was visiting Beijing, a lot of the media and the commentators within the Anglosphere were a bit perturbed, asking what is New Zealand doing with China? Why aren’t they being more vocal about some of the issues that China has? Whereas if you look at it through a relational and maanakitanga lens, this is the normal protocol of hospitality and reciprocal action. The Te Ao Māori approach would be to try and work with this partner and iron out issues rather than joining a chorus of other countries to condemn them.

What can policymakers across the world learn from New Zealand’s approach?

Bonnie: What is interesting in Aotearoa New Zealand is that an Indigenous cultural and societal framework can transcend domestic settings and actually be applied in a practical and pragmatic way in their dealings in the international policy space.

The Māori worldview can be a very useful foreign policy lens because it’s a far more complex way to view international relations.

Nick: There is a bit of hubris in the West, particularly stemming from the Enlightenment and the Western ways of knowing. Western science is seen as universal, so a lot of Western policymakers, academics and public figures reject other ways of knowing. New Zealand’s policies are not revolutionary, but it does show how new ideas can be applied in what is still typically a Western-centric foreign policy apparatus.

The Māori worldview cont.

The Māori worldview can be a very useful foreign policy lens because it’s a far more complex way to view international relations. For example, on climate change, one of the massive limitations with the Western-centric model is the focus on the dominance of humans. The Māori perspective is intergenerational, not human-centric, and focuses on our duty as stewards and guardians.

Will Māori foreign policy last? New Zealand has an election coming up in 2024 – how will this impact the policy?

Bonnie: Yes, in some form it will last because Māori worldviews have been incorporated within the country’s free trade agreements for quite some time. Despite initial doubts from opposition leaders, it has been a fundamental element of negotiation for our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for over 20 years and has featured in every single free trade agreement that New Zealand has with other countries.

Māori world views have been incorporated within the country’s free trade agreements for quite some time.

Nick: New Zealand, like most other democracies, has become more polarized and its prime ministers have been reluctant to fully embrace the Māori foreign policy. In Hipkins’ most recent trip to China he came across as a bit uneasy to fully embrace the Māori aspect of our foreign policy. Whereas with Jacinda Ardern, she made effort to take inspiration from some of the things that Mahuta sketched out. There are a few potential foreign ministers that come to mind that I’m not sure would be very well suited to using this approach.

What are some challenges of embracing Māori indigenous-led foreign policy?

Nick: This is not an approach which has unanimous support in New Zealand. There is a subset of New Zealand society which has a knee-jerk reaction against anything to do with Māori ideas or believe that New Zealand is on the verge of a new apartheid. To my mind, that’s all nonsense, but it does appear in certain discourses around New Zealand politics, particularly with the election coming up. However, amongst the policymakers, there is a broad embrace of this across all different public policymaking areas.

Bonnie: If other countries who have an Indigenous population try to use the Māori foreign policy approach, it might be a difficult path to navigate. Every country that has an Indigenous people has a unique relationship with them which can be complex in their own ways.

Bonnie Holster and Nicholas Ross Smith’s article ‘New Zealand’s “Maori foreign policy” and China: a case of instrumental relationality?’ is free to access in the July 2023 issue of International Affairs