Australian perspectives on the Indo-Pacific: Frances Adamson outlines Australia's approach to regional co-operation and relations with New Zealand.

AuthorAdamson, Frances

Victoria University of Wellington was established in 1897 at a time when, across the Tasman, the colonies that were to make up the Australian Commonwealth were preparing for the birth of our modern nation. Back then, I believe that we were still trying to tempt New Zealanders into the dream of common nationhood --an Australian Federation extending out to a seventh state in New Zealand! Despite the years, and the rivalries, we can very easily understand why the question was so passionately debated--and why the idea was so tempting.

We have our differences, but our commonalities--and our common interests--far outweigh them. Our shared history and values have given Australia and New Zealand a special and enduring relationship--as partners in trade under the CER bilateral free trade agreement, in adventure exploring the Antarctic territories together or vying for the Bledisloe Cup! In my own experience, our partnership is especially valuable when it comes to the practice of foreign affairs.

Regional context

We are not among the great powers, and nor are we insignificant players--and this is reflected in the very foundations of our respective foreign policies. One could argue, and I do, that our diplomacy is all the more important today, when we both find ourselves in the midst of changing global power dynamics that are--for the first time in modern history--anchored in the Indo-Pacific region. These shifts are fluid for reasons beyond our control, and so we must do what we can to influence them in favour of our national and regional interests.

In both Canberra and here in Wellington, there can be a tendency sometimes to under-estimate our power, our weight, the effectiveness of our diplomacy. My message here is that a nation can have a tight foreign policy focus befitting its size and still have a major, outsized impact on its international environment. Our strategies can and should both concentrate our efforts and leverage them for wider ends.

We have already shown that it can be done--Australia and New Zealand have been successful in building linkages across the region to maximise security and prosperity in Asia and the Pacific. In 1989, for example, Australia's Prime Minister Bob Hawke first stood up the idea of a forum for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation--APEC'. Since then, APEC has almost doubled in its membership, and now represents over half of global GDP (1)

To take another example, in the early 2000s, the prime minister of New Zealand Helen Clark led her government through multiple rounds of trade negotiations with what was known as the 'P4'--New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei Darussalam, four economies focused on increased trade liberalisation, and working towards more open and more prosperous economic partnerships.

Piece by piece, the vision of the P4 negotiations gained momentum --propelled forward, most notably, when former President Obama adopted them into the United States' own trade agenda. By 2010, those negotiations had attracted so much interest that the world had started calling them the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

After coundess rounds and some serious setbacks, it was still New Zealand's leadership, together with Australia and Japan, that brought these negotiations over the line. In March 2018, New Zealand, Australia and nine other Pacific Rim economies signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership --the CPTPP--a free trade agreement of unprecedented ambition.

The CPTPP represents over US$10 trillion in GDP, (2) and offers the potential for better income and better living standards for hundreds of millions of people. You would have to count that as a pretty impressive effort New Zealand! The CPTPP is an open platform, and Australia sees it as a step towards a wider free trade area. By setting the standard in international trade liberalisation, it offers a reference point for the future of...

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