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New Zealand foreign policy with President Trump

Line of Defence, Autumn 2017

The Trump presidency presents both challenges and opportunities to New Zealand foreign policy.The Trump presidency presents both challenges and opportunities to New Zealand foreign policy.


Former Defence Minister Hon Dr Wayne Mapp considers the uncertainties faced by New Zealand foreign policy in the context of the new Trump administration, but there are also opportunities.


The election of president Trump has imposed an unusual level of uncertainty over foreign policy compared to any United States administration since the second world. Old certainties have been thrown aside.

Can the United States be counted upon as a leader in liberal free trade? Will the security guarantees stick as bedrock commitments that are both predictable and not beset with unreasonable demands?

Perhaps the most important issue for New Zealand is the change in relationships in the Asia Pacific. One of the very first effects of the Trump presidency will be the end of the TPP, at least in its present form. This agreement was of particular importance to New Zealand.

It meant among other things a free trade agreement with Japan and the United States.  So what will happen next? Will the United States entirely abandon the effort to conclude a free trade deal with its Asia Pacific partners?

President Trump is not entirely against free trade agreements, just those that he sees as not providing the United States sufficient advantages, though that seems to encompass most free trade agreements. Is there any hope for a modified TPP?

This may depend on how the new administration sees the strategic advantage of the TPP. If this is regarded as marginal, then the TPP may not be revived. But if this is a significant factor, there will be an incentive to do a fresh TPP deal.

Much will turn on the perception that the United States has in respect of the role and place of China. If the new administration is worried that China will steal the march because of United States reticence, then the dynamic favours a new TPP. At the moment it is too soon to tell.

The new administration is still working out the best approach to China. At times they seem to favour a broad continuation of existing policy. At other times there is an emphasis on issues that will deeply antagonize the relationship, such as greater recognition of Taiwan, and the imposition of punitive tariffs.


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The Trump administration will build up the military with a particular focus on the Navy and the Airforce. The new strategic bomber is likely to be accelerated.

The Navy will expand to 350 ships, with the additional vessels being a mixture of destroyers, submarines and possibly an additional aircraft carrier. It will take some years to achieve the build-up, although some of it may be achieved earlier by delaying out of service dates.

The outcome could be a more active presence of the US Navy is the western Pacific and more frequent patrols in the South China Sea. There will be a greater potential for tense stand-offs with the PLA. China is also likely to increase its own military spending in response, again focusing on the PLA Airforce and Navy.

There could be considerable risk and uncertainty over the next few months as the new administration settles on its policy toward China. Obviously New Zealand will be hoping for as much continuity as possible. For the moment New Zealand will adopt a wait and see attitude.

It is very easy to focus on the risks of the Trump presidency. It is also worth considering the opportunities.

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Bill English, has returned from his first overseas trip, which was to the UK and Europe. He got a specific commitment from the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, to fast track a FTA between the New Zealand and the UK.

Co-incidentally President elect Trump has also been promoting a FTA between the US and the UK. It fits his support for Brexit, and his good relationships with the Brexiters.

There is a potential multilateral deal here. In essence a “Five Eyes” FTA connecting the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Each of them has their own reasons for a bilateral deal with the UK, now that the UK is leaving the EU. Why not connect all five nations with a comprehensive multilateral FTA?

A “Five Eyes” FTA would be simpler than the TPP. There are more cultural and economic synergies between the five nations than there were between the TPP partners. Such a deal would not need any investor dispute provisions because the five nations all have high quality independent common law courts, though there would need to be a trade court to deal with tariff disputes. There would also be the opportunity to include expanded working visas.

Such a deal could take effect on the day the UK leaves the EU, say two years from now. So it would need to be negotiated over the next year or so.

The fact that the British PM has announced a hard Brexit might indicate that the initial discussions on such a concept have already started. She will need to show the British people that she can negotiate a quality trade deal that looks more appealing than being bound into a myriad of petty EU regulations.

The Trump presidency is a fact. New Zealand, and other nations, will have to find constructive ways of dealing with the new administration. A strategic focus on the opportunities it presents will pay greater dividends than obsessing over the risks.


Hon Dr Wayne Mapp QSO was New Zealand’s Minister of Defence and Minister of Science and Innovation from 2008 to 2011. He was appointed to the New Zealand Law Commission in February 2012.


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