New Zealand: Trouble in paradise? | Inquirer Opinion

New Zealand: Trouble in paradise?

New Zealand: Trouble in paradise?

Auckland/Wellington—After a four-year delay, I finally managed to visit easily among the most beautiful corners of the world, thanks to the generous support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation. When the possibility of joining a week-long program of lectures, briefings, and sightseeing in New Zealand came up during a conversation with Kiwi embassy folks in Manila back in 2019, I was naturally elated.

After all, this was the gorgeous island, with an impeccably temperate climate, where among the most iconic movies of our era have been made. Thanks to its relative isolation and geological attributes, New Zealand has also attracted the attention of plutocrats from the world over, especially Silicon Valley billionaires. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, has described the island nation as “the Future”—a barely-disguised euphemism for the apocalypse-bunkers-cum-ranches mushrooming in the most rustic corners of New Zealand.

Above all, the policy wonk in me looked forward to the possibility of personally meeting then rising global leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who embodied everything ordinary Filipinos like me had hoped for among our political leaders: progressive, energetic, compassionate, competent, and youthful. But just as I prepared to embark on my trip to New Zealand, the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything.


Four years later, New Zealand turned out as, in some ways, a different place altogether. Don’t get me wrong, it was just as distinctly beautiful as I imagined it. Think of the immense warmth and hospitality of Asia New Zealand Foundation folks, policymakers from various branches of the state, the Filipino-Kiwi community, and countless folks I came across throughout my talks and engagements from Christchurch to Wellington and Auckland last week. Not to mention, the breathtaking quality of food, water, and air combined with the mélange of modern, Victorian, and brutalist architecture across the country.

And yet, this was also a country undergoing a major transition. On the political front, nativist and even far-right elements have been gaining ground. Little did I know that the notorious QAnon movement was making major inroads across the country, especially among disaffected and rural communities. The horrendous massacres at Christchurch, targeting Muslim minority communities, were a stark reminder of the island’s vulnerability to nefarious alt-right influence from without. Ardern’s shocking resignation last year came on the back of utter political exasperations, thanks to an increasingly toxic political climate, which was on full display during the three-week-long occupation of the nation’s parliament by New Zealand’s own version of the MAGA movement.

Mainstream media has also been under tremendous financial and social strain, as television viewership collapses and libertarian disinformation on social media gains ground. And then there is the impact of China’s growing influence in New Zealand’s backyard as well as the intensifying US-China rivalry across the Indo-Pacific. In response, Wellington has been undergoing a foreign policy reset to preserve its strategic autonomy, more effectively protect its vast maritime space, and strengthen relations with like-minded regional actors, including the Philippines.

Although not exactly a frontline state, New Zealand has been gripped by a spirited debate between two ideologically passionate groups. On one hand, some want the country to adopt a more proactive security role, reduce economic dependence on China, build up its defensive capabilities, and avoid turning into an opportunistic free rider within the Five Eyes network of anglophone partners. For others, New Zealand has to preserve not only its precious economic ties with China but also consciously avoid any entanglements that could undermine the country’s non-aligned foreign policy.


As a result, New Zealand’s relationship with the Australia-United Kingdom-United States alliance has become a contentious and increasingly polarizing issue among the country’s strategic elite. But one area where there seems to be a solid bipartisan consensus is the need to reach out to fellow democratic island nations such as the Philippines, which is demonstrating the perils and virtues of strategic hedging in a new era of great power competition.

Expanding bilateral trade and investment ties as well as deepening security cooperation, including a reciprocal access agreement, are the next logical steps for the extremely promising Philippine-New Zealand relations. Given their expansive exclusive economic zones, both nations have a profound interest in a rules-based global maritime order as well as maintaining ties with all major powers on an even keel. Against an increasingly alarming geopolitical backdrop, the future of our bilateral relations is, paradoxically, extremely promising.



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