Until recently, if New Zealanders thought about their country’s links to NATO, it was likely the two-decade long deployment to Afghanistan that came to mind. But if there might have been some sense those ties lay in the past, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has brought them squarely back to public attention. New Zealand’s links as a non-member partner of NATO have been central to its response to the war, including channeling aid to Kyiv. Last June, Jacinda Ardern became the first New Zealand prime minister to attend a NATO summit, joining three other leaders from Australia, Japan and South Korea as NATO’s four Indo-Pacific partners (IP4). 

NATO allies and partner countries, including New Zealand Defence Force troops, help to train Ukrainian recruits in the United Kingdom. (NATO)
NATO allies and partner countries, including New Zealand Defence Force troops, help to train Ukrainian recruits in the United Kingdom. (NATO)

But as Ardern’s successor Chris Hipkins jets to the July 11-12 Vilnius Summit, two contrasting aspects of New Zealand engagement with NATO can be discerned. On the one hand, Wellington has a strong interest in sustaining military links to NATO to benefit from access to doctrine, training, tactics and procedures. New Zealand is pushing ahead with a new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP) agreement that will map out issues of common interest and possible areas for cooperation with the alliance. And the government sees the NATO connection as a crucial way to provide support for Ukraine.

On the other hand, New Zealand’s claim to an “independent foreign policy” has made the Labour government cautious about getting too close to NATO. Wellington remains wary about the alliance’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific and uncertain about the future trajectory of the IP4. Hipkins’ presence at the summit will be scrutinized intently to see what it says about his government’s willingness to align more closely with traditional security partners and their concerns about an assertive China.

New Zealand, NATO and Ukraine: A New Context

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked New Zealanders and provided a new context for New Zealand’s relationship with NATO. Unsurprisingly for a small country that prizes respect for sovereignty and international law, Wellington’s condemnation of the invasion was swift and unambiguous. Parliament unanimously passed a Russia sanctions law, breaking with a long-standing preference for implementing broad sanctions only with United Nations Security Council authorization.

The New Zealand government announced humanitarian aid and donated 11.35 million New Zealand dollars to the NATO Trust Fund to provide non-lethal equipment to Ukraine. But in the face of public pressure to do more, it soon dispatched a C-130 aircraft and 50 defense personnel to Europe to ferry assistance to Kyiv. NZ$7.5 million was provided to the United Kingdom to purchase weapons for Ukraine. Military intelligence analysts were sent to work with their British and NATO counterparts, and in May 2022 two New Zealand Defence Force infantry training teams were deployed to the United Kingdom to train Armed Forces of Ukraine troops, a deployment that was subsequently extended through to mid-2024. As of May 2023, New Zealand had committed NZ$78 million in assistance to help Ukraine, deployed 440 troops and sanctioned more than 1,500 Russian and Belarussian individuals and entities.

Important Shared Interests …

The New Zealand-NATO relationship supports important common interests, including working to promote maritime security, cybersecurity, and tackling trans-boundary threats, including terrorism. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has described NATO as a “long-standing and likeminded partner,” saying, “It is important that we continue to engage with our close partners to address shared security challenges, many of which are global in nature with wide-ranging implications, including in the Pacific.” She said she expected the new ITPP would cover areas of common interest “such as support for the international rules based order, climate change, and cyber security.”

New Zealand officials are increasingly conscious of connections between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions, including the flow-on economic impacts of the Ukraine war as well as lessons that others might draw from the conflict. New Zealand has repeatedly urged China not to provide military support for Russia and sanctioned Iranian entities for doing so. And although not expressed explicitly, parallels with a potential conflict across the Taiwan Strait are keenly understood. A November 2022 cabinet paper noted that one reason for a strong New Zealand response to Russia’s aggression was “to avoid precedents being set for similar actions by other states.”

For New Zealand’s small military, working with NATO also makes good sense. It provides an opportunity to access training opportunities, to share information and to maintain the ability to operate easily with key security partners. After several years of closed borders and the loss of training opportunities due to the pandemic, the chance for New Zealand personnel to deploy to Europe in support of Ukraine was a welcome boost to morale.

… But Constraints Remain

But if the war in Ukraine has provided an important focus for renewed practical cooperation with NATO, there are also political constraints that will be worth watching during Hipkins’ visit. Some of these tensions played out at the 2022 Madrid Summit. Jacinda Ardern’s participation came shortly after she and U.S. President Joe Biden had issued a Joint statement that was notable for the number of references it made to China. While there was little New Zealand had not said before, Ardern faced some criticism at home for what was seen as an excessively pro-U.S. tilt and weakening of the so-called independent foreign policy. Perhaps conscious of that, her remarks in Madrid seemed to have a domestic audience in mind. Although she lauded NATO’s leadership on Ukraine, she pointedly opened with the comment that “New Zealand was not here to expand our military alliances” and stressed what she called the country’s “fiercely held independent foreign policy.”

A second and related issue is Wellington’s cautiousness about NATO’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific region and the alliance’s concerns about China. This has implications for the development of IP4 grouping. The group contains natural partners for New Zealand: Australia is the country’s only formal ally and Wellington is keen to develop closer ties, with Tokyo and Seoul, including on defense. New Zealand and Japan recently concluded a Statement of Intent to deepen their cooperation on security issues. The chance to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol — and indeed all the leaders in Vilnius — will be a welcome one for Hipkins.

But NATO’s increasing focus on the challenge posed by China will also raise some political tests for the new prime minister. The alliance’s 2022 Strategic Concept decried Beijing’s “coercive policies,” which it said represent a challenge to its members’ “interests, security and values.” But when Ardern commented at the Madrid Summit that China had become “more assertive and more willing to challenge rules and norms,” it prompted an angry outburst from the Chinese embassy in Wellington, which called her comments “unhelpful, regrettable and wrong.”

Wellington has been careful to try to manage its relationship with Beijing, which now takes around a third of the country’s exports. Even as it has made significant changes to domestic regulatory frameworks to manage risk, New Zealand has preferred to express its differences with Beijing in a more muted fashion than most of its traditional partners. This approach was very much on display during Hipkins’ recent visit to China, which was notable for its emphasis on the trade and economic opportunities rather than the differences that have increasingly characterized bilateral ties in recent years. With just three months until New Zealand’s next general election, and the country already in recession, the prime minister will not want to do anything that might upset that key economic relationship.

Observers will be watching with interest to see what signals Hipkins sends in Vilnius; doubtless he will emphasize the New Zealand-NATO connection as part of the international response to Russia’s aggression. There will be lots of warm references to shared values and like-minded partners. And the logic of New Zealand’s military-to-military connection with the alliance remains. But when it comes to a greater NATO role in the Indo-Pacific, or how to respond to a more assertive China, on those points Hipkins’ words will deserve special attention.

David Capie is the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies and professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

Related Publications

Illicit Drugs Are Undermining Pacific Security

Illicit Drugs Are Undermining Pacific Security

Saturday, March 9, 2024

By: Jose Sousa-Santos

A quick succession of drug busts in Fiji earlier this year — the seizure of 3.5 tons of crystal methamphetamine followed by another 1.1 tons — underscored the threat that the illicit drug trade and narco-corruption pose to the stability and security of countries and societies situated along the so-called Pacific drug highway.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

Washington Picks Up the Pace in the Pacific

Washington Picks Up the Pace in the Pacific

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

By: Brian Harding

Senior Biden administration officials are back in the Pacific Islands region this week. Once a seemingly far-flung corner of the globe, the United States has in recent years prioritized engagement to counter China’s foothold in a region Washington long neglected. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is the first U.S. defense chief to visit Papua New Guinea, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken went in late May and signed a bilateral defense cooperation deal. Meanwhile, Blinken is Tonga this week to open a new U.S. embassy in the island nation. The top U.S. diplomat will also visit New Zealand before heading to Australia where he will be joined by Austin for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

What’s Behind NATO’s Tightening Ties with its Indo-Pacific Partners?

What’s Behind NATO’s Tightening Ties with its Indo-Pacific Partners?

Thursday, July 6, 2023

By: Mirna Galic

NATO’s summit in Madrid, Spain, in June 2022 marked the first time the four leaders of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partner countries — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea (ROK) — joined NATO counterparts for a meeting at the heads of state and government level. July 2023, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, will mark the second. The high level of media attention paid to the attendance in Madrid of the Indo-Pacific partners, known informally as the Indo-Pacific Four or IP4, is likely to be repeated in Vilnius. Beyond this, what should Indo-Pacific watchers expect from the Vilnius Summit in terms of NATO-IP4 developments?

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

View All Publications