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Geoffrey Miller: Antony Blinken’s endgame for New Zealand, AUKUS and a visit down under



The US Secretary of State’s visit to New Zealand and Australia this week comes as the two countries jointly host the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has highlighted the potential for ‘good old-fashioned sports diplomacy’ – and the secretary is scheduled to attend the United States vs Netherlands match in Wellington on Thursday afternoon.

But the travel is more than just a chance to take in a game.

Antony Blinken’s visit just happens to coincide with a trip to Wellington by Anthony Albanese.

The Australian prime minister is coming for talks with his New Zealand counterpart, Chris Hipkins.

It seems inevitable that New Zealand’s potential role in the AUKUS defence pact will be up for discussion in closed-door meetings involving Albanese, Blinken, Hipkins and Mahuta.

The US Secretary of State will arrive in New Zealand after a stopover in Tonga to dedicate a new US embassy in Nuku’alofa.

The new US embassy in Tonga fulfils a pledge made by US Vice President Kamala Harris in a virtual address to the Pacific Islands Forum in July last year.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Tonga’s Prime Minister Tonga’s Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi in Nuku'alofa on 26 July, 2023.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Tonga’s Prime Minister Tonga’s Prime Minister Hu’akavemeiliku Siaosi in Nuku’alofa on 26 July. Photo: AFP/ Tupou Vaipulu

The swift opening of the new diplomatic mission – which commenced operations in May – is one way to show that Washington means business when it comes to the Pacific.

An in-person visit to Tonga – population 100,000 – by America’s top diplomat is another.

Further south, calls on New Zealand by top-ranking US officials have traditionally also been rare: the last visit by a US Secretary of State came when Rex Tillerson spent eight hours in Wellington in 2017.

But New Zealand has seen a parade of senior US officials arriving over the past year, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy ShermanWhite House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink.

Soon after Campbell’s visit in March, New Zealand’s defence minister Andrew Little indicated New Zealand was willing to explore joining the ‘second pillar’ of AUKUS – comments that were later somewhat walked back by Hipkins.

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In recent years, New Zealand has already made remarkable foreign policy shifts – and it is worth remembering just how far Wellington has come.

After all, when Tillerson visited six years ago, New Zealand was still getting used to rebuilding ties with the United States, after the bilateral relationship had languished for several decades.

The US suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty in 1986, in response to the introduction of a nuclear-free policy by New Zealand’s Fourth Labour Government.

Normalisation began with the ‘Wellington Declaration’ – signed when Hillary Clinton visited New Zealand in 2010 – and the companion military-focused ‘Washington Declaration’ in 2012.

However, the US began allowing New Zealand into its military drills even later: New Zealand was invited to participate in the joint US-Australia ‘Talisman Sabre’ exercise for the first time in 2015.

New Zealand has been a consistent participant since then, including in the 2023 edition of Talisman Sabre that is currently underway in northern Australia.

This year’s version is the biggest yet, involving 13 countries and some 30,000 troops.

Countries involved for the first time include Germany and India (the latter as an observer), while militaries from all three of the smaller Pacific Island nations that have standing armies are also on board: Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

While all militaries need to train, this year’s Talisman Sabre is designed more than ever to project US-led unity and strength vis-à-vis China.

In this respect, New Zealand presents something of a dilemma.

Wellington’s foreign policy has undoubtedly become more hardline over the past year.

By and large, New Zealand has been listening and responding to its more hawkish Western partners.

Chris Hipkins’ Labour Government has signed up to new US-led groupings and joint statements, expanded New Zealand’s ties with NATO and committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on its military.

But as Hipkins’ recent trip to China showed, New Zealand is still China’s best friend in the West – and in substance and tone, the New Zealand prime minister is still striking a markedly softer tone than his more hawkish friends.

For the most part, Hipkins is content to describe Wellington’s relationship with Beijing as ‘complex’ and has largely settled on the relatively mild adjective of ‘assertive’ to describe China’s ambitions.

The ‘assertive’ descriptor popped up in Hipkins’ most-detailed foreign policy address to date, made to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) shortly before the PM headed to Europe for the NATO summit in mid-July.

The PM then referred to ‘China’s increasing assertiveness’ in his speech in Vilnius – and he drew on ‘assertive’ once again when he spoke to the recent China Business Summit in Auckland.

The choice has not come out of thin air: the strongest words on Beijing in the recent Strategic Foreign Policy Assessment from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) are a reference to ‘the Chinese Government’s more assertive foreign policy’.

The MFAT blueprint also frequently deploys the ‘complex’ wording favoured by Hipkins.

This results in some rather tortured and deliberately oblique phrasings in reference to risks for New Zealand, such as ‘increasing regional complexities arising from engagement by development partners from outside the region’.

By contrast, the NATO leaders’ communique issued in Lithuania is crystal clear in its calling-out of Beijing: ‘The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’.

To be fair, Antony Blinken himself has attempted to take a more constructive tone of late in a bid to build bridges with Beijing, following the recent visits by the Secretary of State and other top US officials to China.

But this should still be seen in context: while Blinken was conciliatory when he pledged in June to ‘manage’ US rivalry with China ‘so that the relationship does not veer into conflict’, he also recently delivered remarks in Indonesia that decried ‘the use of force, coercion, or aggression’ – talking points that were squarely aimed at Beijing.

Back in Wellington, New Zealand may now be reading the same book as its Western partners, but it is not yet quite on the same page.

But there is still time for the US to influence the trajectory of New Zealand foreign policy.

The most significant components of New Zealand’s foreign policy realignment are yet to come.

Hipkins recently [National Security Strategy signalled the release] of a new National Security Strategy, while the results from an expedited ‘Defence Policy Review’ process are expected soon.

But with New Zealand’s election taking place on 14 October, the reports – and Blinken’s visit – are likely to inform decisions that will be taken by the country’s next government.

Antony Blinken is entering New Zealand’s field of play.

The geopolitical stakes are high.

And the game is not over yet.

* Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian. He is currently working on a PhD on New Zealand’s relations with the Gulf states.


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Christchurch terror attack inquest: ‘Significant blind spot’ relating to St John’s specialist paramedics – coroner



A woman who was forced to leave the side of her bleeding husband following the terror attack at Christchurch’s Linwood Islamic Centre only discovered he had died the following day after seeking help from then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

Saira Patel’s husband Musa Patel was one of seven people who died after being shot at the Linwood Islamic Centre, following the massacre at nearby Al Noor Mosque on 15 March 2019.

Supported by her son, Patel told the inquest into the deaths that she and her husband were praying in separate parts of the mosque on the day of the attack.

Patel said she thought a tyre had blown when she heard a loud bang. A baby began to cry, and she could soon smell gunpowder.

She yelled, “Someone is shooting, someone is shooting” as people ran to escape.

When Patel found her bleeding husband, she told the Coroners Court she could hear him saying his “last prayer” as if he knew he was about to die.

Imam Hafiz Musa Patel

Musa Patel died at Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March 2019. Photo: Facebook/ US Embassy Suva

She said she was forced to leave when police arrived and started treating Musa Patel, an order that distressed her to this day.

“I think any dying person who is about to leave this world would be very desperately craving and needing to be close to their loved ones. My presence during his final moments would have made a big difference in my life and I think maybe his last moments of departing this world,” she said.

She did not know her husband had died until the following day, when she approached then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who led her to a counsellor.

Patel said the counsellor showed her a photo of an unidentified man in hospital who was not her husband.

“I knew then that my husband was dead. There was no-one else who could have identified him, and this last unidentified man was my last hope,” she said.

Patel thanked the doctors and paramedics who did everything they could to console her husband in his final moments.

“I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart,” she said.

“I was trying to be with him in that last moment but maybe they were chosen to be with him.”

Dr Alison Wooding from nearby Piki Te Ora Medical Centre was one of the doctors who treated Musa Patel when staff went to the mosque to help the injured.

She told the court he was meant to be the first victim taken to hospital but realised he had died after he was moved onto a stretcher.

Wooding said she and others were talking to Musa Patel the entire time they cared for him, but she did not recall him ever responding.

Police officers gave evidence on Tuesday saying Musa Patel had been able to communicate with them at first but his condition deteriorated over time.

Wooding told the court she felt apprehensive and worried about the situation at the mosque, but safe and protected between armed and vigilant police officers.

29th November 2023 Iain McGregor/The Press/Pool Christchurch Masjidain Attack Coronial hearing. Coroner Brigitte Windley.

Deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley. Photo: The Press / Iain McGregor

‘Significant blind spot’ relating to St John emergency response team – coroner

The coroner has queried a “significant blind spot” in the way St John ambulance officers work with specialist paramedics trained to work in dangerous situations.

Deputy chief coroner Brigitte Windley questioned St John duty manager Bruce Chubb about the organisation’s response massacre.

Two Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) paramedics were among ambulance officers who went to the scene of the shooting in Linwood Avenue.

No-one from St John attended the Al Noor scene in a SERT capacity.

Chubb told the Coroners Court that SERT teams worked under police and it was not uncommon for St John not to know when they had been requested, where they were, or what they were doing.

In response, coroner Windley said: “My concern is that that creates a significant blind spot for St John, doesn’t it?”

“Isn’t it that these are critical resources in terms of closing that care gap for people who are dying and injured and being able to get a response in, and you’ve got no visibility about where they are and even if in fact they’ve been deployed?”

041223 CHRIS SKELTON Witness, Bruce Chubb from St John command and control during the Christchurch terror attack inquest held at the Christchurch Justice precinct.

St John’s Bruce Chubb. Photo: Stuff / Chris Skelton

Chubb said he was not suggesting it was “okay” that St John did not know where SERT officers were but said it was the practice at the time.

He was not aware of any changes to the SERT policy since the terror attack.

Chubb told the coroner he thought it was “always nice to know” where resources were, to which she replied, “I would suggest it’s more than nice to know. I would suggest that St John needs to know”.

Chubb earlier told the inquest that he believed general ambulance officers should not have entered either mosque immediately after the shootings because of the safety risk.

Windley said the court was concerned St John ambulance officers had to breach the organisation’s policy in order to get an emergency response in place.

“Do you agree that that’s fundamentally a problem?” she asked.

“Yes,” Chubb replied.

Earlier on Tuesday, Chubb told counsel for families Kathryn Dalziel that the terror attack was a catastrophic event that he did not expect and was never prepared for.

“I don’t believe any of my colleagues were either, so it was fundamentally overwhelming,” he said.

The inquest will examine the following 10 issues over seven weeks:

  • Events of 15 March 2019 from the commencement of the attack until the terrorist’s formal interview by police
  • Response times and entry processes of police and ambulance officers at each mosque
  • Triage and medical response at each mosque
  • The steps that were taken to apprehend the offender
  • The role of, and processes undertaken by, Christchurch Hospital in responding to the attack
  • Coordination between emergency services and first responders
  • Whether the terrorist had any direct assistance from any other person on 15 March 2019
  • If raised by immediate family, and to the extent it can be ascertained, the final movements and time of death for each of the deceased
  • The cause of death for each of the victims and whether any deaths could have been avoided
  • Whether Al Noor Mosque emergency exit door in the southeast corner of the main prayer room failed to function during the attack and, if so, why?

The inquest continues.


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Protests raise questions about next year’s Waitangi day



In the wake of protests over the new government’s policies on co-governance and the Treaty, the head of the Waitangi National Trust Board says it is important Treaty partners front up and have a conversation on 6 February.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says he intends to visit for Waitangi Day, as does ACT’s David Seymour.

The protests taking place across New Zealand on Tuesday were part of a “National Māori Action Day”, led by Te Pāti Māori and iwi, to challenge the government over its policies on the Treaty of Waitangi, and other policies affecting Māori.

Waitangi National Trust Board chairperson Pita Tipene expected for that sentiment to flow through on Waitangi Day.

“Clearly, the Māori people see it as an attack on the Treaty of Waitangi and the constitutional basis of this country,” Tipene said.

These include switching from Māori to English names on various government departments, rewriting legislation to make mentions of the principles of the Treaty more specific, and progressing an ACT bill calling for the principles to be set down under its own prescription, rather than decades of jurisprudence.


Ngāti Hine leader Pita Tipene

Ngāti Hine leader Pita Tipene Photo: RNZ

Tipene told Checkpoint there was no invite list for politicians per se, and the doors of the Trust were open for all to come along.

“Given that it is a Waitangi Day commemorations period, it’s really important that the Treaty of Waitangi is the focus, and therefore the Treaty partners should front up and have a conversation.”

He would be disappointed, but not surprised, if parties in government were not represented there on the day.

“It has happened before where governments or political parties have chosen not to front up at Waitangi.”


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Te Pāti Māori protests – Day of action focuses on new government’s Māori policies



Police says protesters are causing widespread delays at key transport networks around the North Island, but there have been no arrests so far.

A police spokesperson says commuters should allow travel time this morning, with Te Pāti Māori’s planned protests disrupting travel routes.

There are large gatherings in Tāmaki Makaurau and central Wellington, along with a number of other cities and towns.

The spokesperson says Auckland motorists are advised there are heavy delays on parts of the motorway network this morning.

The demonstrations are in response to Te Pāti Māori’s call for action against the new government’s policies on co-governance and the Treaty.


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