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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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NZ First Minister Casey Costello orders 50% cut to excise tax on heated tobacco products



Associate Health Minister Casey Costello has cut the excise tax on Heated Tobacco Products (HTPs), as she aims to make them more attractive as an alternative to smoking.

Costello, who is also Customs Minister, has cut the excise rate on HTPs by 50 percent effective from 1 July – a move silently dropped on the Customs website.

Costello refused to be interviewed by RNZ but a spokesman said she had made the move to reduce the cost of the products to encourage smokers to switch to safer alternatives.

But Janet Hoek, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, told RNZ that the move seemed weighted in favour of the tobacco industry.

“Certainly that is something that tobacco companies would have been keen to see happen,” Hoek said. “This is not advice that is coming from the Ministry (of Health). It certainly seems to be advice that is suiting tobacco industry interests.”

Tobacco giant Philip Morris owns a leading brand in the HTP market, the IQOS, where sticks of tobacco are inserted into a device and heated, rather than burned.

Philip Morris has lobbied for a cut to the excise tax on HTPs, telling the Tax Working Group in 2018 that the government should “establish a tax rate for heated tobacco products significantly below the tax rate” for tobacco.

In a statement to RNZ Costello said that vaping had been a successful quit-smoking tool and she wanted to see whether HTPs would also be a useful cessation device.

“Vaping does not work for everyone and some attempting to quit have tried several times. HTPs have a similar risk profile to vapes and they are currently legally available, so we are testing what impact halving excise on those products makes.”

HEETS are tobacco sticks or refills that are heated in an electronic device, rather than burned like a traditional cigarette.

There is no evidence that Heated Tobacco Products help people to quit smoking, the Ministry of Health says. Photo: 123RF

Documents released by the Ministry of Health show Costello also asked for advice on liberalising the regulation of HTPs but it was opposed to the idea.

“There is no evidence to support their use as a quit smoking tool,” ministry officials told her. “We do not recommend liberalising the way HTPs are promoted. This would likely compound existing concerns about youth uptake and addiction to nicotine products.


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26-year-old charged after man found dead in car outside vape store



Police in Auckland have arrested a man in relation to the homicide investigation launched in Mount Wellington at the weekend.

Officers were called to Penrose Road in Mount Wellington about 10.40pm on Saturday after reports of a gun being fired outside a business.

On arrival they found a man dead in a car.

Police have named the man as 22-year-old Texas Jack Doctor.

They say a 26-year-old man has been arrested, charged with accessory after the fact to murder.

He is expected to appear in Auckland District Court Wednesday.


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Police pay deal: Commissioner’s advice to cut super payments ‘foolish’



Police officers are accusing the police commissioner of “robbing our future”, after a leaked email suggested staff reduce their superannuation contribution to save cash after a disappointing pay offer.

The email to police staff from Police Commissioner Andrew Coster suggested officers forgo their contribution to the police superannuation scheme to compensate for the government’s final pay offer not keeping up with the cost of living.

An officer with nearly 20 years’ experience says cops were feeling “unappreciated and despondent”.

The Police Association and the government have been arguing over pay rates for more than a year.

Independent arbitrator Vicki Campbell was appointed in April to decide which of each party’s final offers would be adopted after no agreement was reached in negotiations.

On Monday, she found in favour of the government’s latest offer, which included a $1500 lump sum payment, a flat $5000 pay increase for officers, plus another 4 percent increase in July and the same in 2025.

There would also be a 5.25 percent increase in allowances backdated to last November.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the officer said backdating the allowances to November instead of July – when the previous pay agreement had expired – was one of the biggest bones of contention among officers.

“It’s always months down the track after after the contract expires before we get a resolution. We’ve been sold short and have we just set a dangerous precedent that we won’t get our back pay from when our contract actually ends?” they said.

Another officer, who RNZ agreed not to name, said members of the Police Association had welcomed the arrival of the new government’s Minister of Police – former officer Mark Mitchell – but he was not “walking the walk”.

“I was optimistic given what Mark Mitchell was saying that it would be a better environment for police. He’s good at talking it up but he’s not supporting the staff who are supposed to deliver on his big promises. He’s just talked shit,” the officer said.

Mitchell has defended the deal saying it was the best the government could do. He told Checkpoint on Tuesday officers would be paid overtime for the first time ever.

The officer RNZ spoke to said his family was struggling and he had hoped negotiations would bring some significant relief.

“We live from pay day to pay day. What they’ve done doesn’t give us anything like inflation or most interest rates costs.

“I don’t understand how that’s okay when you have a review for this date, the police stall negotiations, and then somehow move the date back,” he said.

In a leaked email sent to police staff following the decision Coster said the delays to negotiations were compounded by the timing of the election and the change of government.


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