Mahuta’s fixation with indigeneity leaves us curious about how she will grasp (delicately, no doubt) the Chinese nettle

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta could have – or should have? – addressed the Diplomatic Corps in Wellington long before now about the direction in which New Zealand’s foreign policy will be taken on her watch.  She has had the job for three months, after all.

But no.  The diplomats journeyed to the Bay of Islands, near the spot where “180 years of treaty partnership between the indigenous Maori inhabitants and the British settlers who arrived here” will be celebrated this weekend.

Wow.  That took care of “The Crown”.

The speech has been posted on The Beehive website along with –

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that Matariki will be celebrated on Friday 24 June next year. “Matariki will be a distinctly New Zealand holiday; a time for reflection and celebration, and our first public holiday that recognises Te Ao Māori,” she said.
  • A record quarterly high in the number of new homes consented is regarded in the Beehive as evidence that the residential building sector is responding to Government support to get new houses built.
  • The Government is welcoming the approval for the Ngā Ūranga ki Pito-one section of Te Ara Tupua, the walking and cycling link between Wellington and Lower Hutt.  The 4.5-kilometre long, five-metre wide shared path will run along Wellington Harbour’s coastal edge, away from State Highway 2 traffic.

Ninth-ranking Mahuta – it might be remembered – was an unexpected choice for the senior Foreign Affairs portfolio.

While she expressed surprise at being awarded the job, Beehive insiders said she lobbied hard for it with Prime Minister Jacinda Adern.

But until now we have heard little from her other than the routine appointments of ambassadors, expressions of outrage at the latest military coup in Myanmar, and a tweet (rather than a press statement) on how well she got on with the new US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.

Oh – and let’s not forget she soured the Aussies (as Trade Minister Damien O’Connor has done) by advising Canberra to practice a little diplomacy in dealing with those awkward people in Beijing.

Mahuta told the the diplomats in the Bay of Islands of her intention to bring the interests of indigenous peoples into foreign policy considerations and to deepen relationships with indigenous peoples. Committing to a National Plan of Action for the Implementation of UNDRIP is a part of that approach.

“As an Indigenous Foreign Minister however, I believe that diplomacy is intergenerational in its intent, where we put people, planet, peace and prosperity for all at the centre. This approach sits at the core of my ambition to lead a different approach.”

Then she mentioned her ancestors navigating their passage here through South East Asia and across the Pacific, using the stars, Māori calendar, currents and wind as navigational tools.

She didn’t say this happened just 800 or so years ago and that we know the names of the migrant vessels which brought them here (Aotea, Kurahaupō, Mataatua and so on).  Australia’s indigenous people have been there for 40,000 years – or maybe 60,000 years, who knows?

Nevertheless, Mahuta intends making “a more inclusive approach to indigenous issues” a feature of foreign policy.

“This will see economic, social, environmental and cultural benefits to countries willing to step up to this opportunity. We must be deliberate on this front, otherwise civil unrest, poverty and social deprivation are likely to emerge – it does not have to be this way.

 “We will nurture our relationships with like-minded partners who share our values. We will work with small and medium sized countries to bring a collective voice into international forums and form strategic positions on issues that define the type of global community we want to see.”

Mahuta aims to take “a values-based approach” to foreign policy and work collectively in pursuit of our core interests, which include:

  • an international rules based order, which gives all countries a voice and provides frameworks that promote stability;
  • keeping New Zealanders safe, promoting regional stability;
  • international conditions and connections that aid our prosperity, including supply chain resilience; and,
  • global action on sustainability issues such as climate change where solutions depend on international cooperation.

Upholding “special responsibilities” in the Realm and Antarctica are also core elements of our foreign policy.

Discussing the “bi-cultural values” that will influence the conduct of foreign policy gave Mahuta the pretext (if she needed one) to pepper her remarks with te reo.

She was referring to values such as:

  • manaaki – kindness or the reciprocity of goodwill;
  • whanaunga – our connectedness or shared sense of humanity;
  • mahi tahi and kotahitanga – collective benefits and shared aspiration; and,
  • kaitiaki – protectors and stewards of our intergenerational wellbeing.

“Each of these values when expressed in a relationship gives a sense that everything is connected and purposeful. What the world needs now is a commitment towards empathy, sustainability, and intergenerational solutions for wellbeing.”

The speech dealt (briefly) with an array of foreign relationships –

Australia is our only formal ally and an indispensable partner across the breadth of our international interests.

Mature and robust relationships with Pacific countries are essential to progressing our interests. Promoting agreed Pacific priorities is vital (COVAX) to New Zealand.

We have much in common and will continue to invest effort with the 10 ASEAN countries, Japan, Korea, and India.

Our relationship with the United States – an integral defence and security partner and our third largest individual trading relationship – will continue to strengthen.

China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner and we have an important relationship.  We seek a mature relationship where both parties have realistic expectations of each other, as we look for opportunities to work together where we are able to.

Canada is a strong friend, we share common values and objectives for the sort of world we want to operate within. Mahuta is encouraged by the prospect of greater indigenous collaboration.

Our relationships in Europe are long-standing shared interests in upholding the rule of law, promoting human rights and democracy and working together to address some of the most serious issues facing the world, including on the environment and climate change.

Our relationship with the United Kingdom is “historic and enduring” and (as with the EU) will be strengthened by concluding ambitious, comprehensive free trade agreements.

We will continue to invest in our relationships across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our effort to develop partnerships in the Middle East shows how we value growing opportunities in the region.

Mahuta is keen to put more effort into our relationships across Africa, where she believes there is great scope for mutually beneficial partnerships centred on political, trade and economic interests.

As readers can see, China was given only a passing mention in the speech.  Yet it is this country’s biggest foreign affairs challenge, because of the delicate balance to be struck between commercial interests and broader foreign policy fundamentals.

Since the 1990s NZ has become ever-more commercially involved with the people’s republic. A decade or more ago, ministers could scarcely contain their enthusiasm for the emerging polity, the marvelous economy and consistent government.

The China of today is vastly different. Back then, its core of unchallengeable interests was limited to Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Today Tibet, China’s Muslim population, Hong Kong, increasingly Taiwan, the South China Sea, and China’s belt and road campaign all form important elements of those interests.

Xi-Jinping has become a second Mao-Tse-Tung, even down to adopting the great man’s mantle of the “Great Helmsman”.  A swim in the Yangtse River must be on the agenda.

China’s treatment of its Uyghurs combined with its rough-house handling of Hong Kong’s democracy supporters simply underscores its contempt for human rights and international agreements. It has expanded its control over the South China Sea and in a recent directive, authorised its ships to fire on intruders.

 As the Financial Times points out,

 “China’s relative economic performance has been stunning. More important still is its potential. China faces huge economic challenges. But it need not manage them all that well to have much the world’s largest economy. At present, China’s output per head (at purchasing power parity) is a third of the US’s (up from 8 per cent in 2000) and half of the EU’s. Suppose that this rises to only half of the US level by 2050. China’s economy would then be as big as those of the US and EU, together.”

 All of this poses challenges for the western world, let alone NZ.

President Biden’s administration promises a robust reaction to the China challenge. It has appointed a vastly experienced diplomat, Kurt Campbell, to become what Washington calls Biden’s “China czar”.

He will run the relationship. He knows Asia well – along with the Pacific and NZ.

Mahuta’s predecessor, Winston Peters, deserves credit for the US focusing on the broader Indo-Pacific and all of Washington’s utterances to reflect this thus far have stressed the need for  cooperation and shared interests.

Considering how the US and the West should manage relationships with China, the FT’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, lays out some guidelines.

First, the US and its allies have to revitalise their democracies and their economies. They must protect their technological autonomy by revitalising the scientific and technological infrastructure, including by refurbishing education and encouraging immigration of talented people.

Then, they have to defend the core values of adherence to truth and freedom of speech against all enemies, domestic and foreign (including China). Moreover, they must  unite in doing so. China should not be allowed to pick off and bully smaller countries, one by one.

Third, they need to refurbish the institutions of the global economy they created and propose new multilateral rules that bind China’s behaviour and by which they too will be bound.

That’s not bad advice for Mahuta, too, as she paddles her waka into the troubled waters of foreign policy.



Wellington shared path on the fast-track

 4 FEBRUARY 2021

Inaugural Foreign Policy Speech to Diplomatic Corps

Residential building sector surging

2022 Matariki holiday date announced

4 thoughts on “Mahuta’s fixation with indigeneity leaves us curious about how she will grasp (delicately, no doubt) the Chinese nettle

  1. Mahuta’s speech contains an assertion of Maori sovereignty while allowing the Crown the role of “governance” . Perhaps foreign missions will shortly be seeking to relocate in order to establish relations with the actual sovereign authorities rather than the cardboard cutout in Wellington? But where?


  2. Will someone please explain the word “indigenous” to all in New Zealand.
    It is very similar to “endemic” except for the requirement that the individuals concerned are not ‘introduced’ into the relevant country. Present day Maori are simply descendants of a band of colonists from the thirteenth century.
    As such, they are of the same standing as most people living here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Tuatara are pretty “indigenous”, Maori – not so much. The primary meaning of the word is “originating or occurring naturally in a place”. The UN however has promoted the politically charged connotation referring to the earlier inhabitants of a country. That suits activists very well. It will shortly be “hate speech”, punishable by a prison term of up to three years, to argue that Maori are not “indigenous” in the true sense of the word.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.