Q+A: Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully

Published: Sun 26 May 2013 11:15 AM
Corin Dann interviews Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully
Relationship with US is now non-contentious, but will continue to maintain independent foreign policy.
End of deployments in Afghanistan and Timor Leste means there are peacekeeping forces available, expect to have requests for assistance.
NZ is ‘respectful’ of its relationships with the US and China but not afraid to speak its mind.
NZ approach is not to take sides, but deal with issues on their merit before deciding how to act.
Confident NZ has “a good shot” at getting a seat on the UN Security Council. NZ’s voice needs to be heard.
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Murray McCully, thank you very much for joining us. Next week a NZ naval ship will visit the port of Guam, the US port there. That’s the first visit by a NZ naval ship in - what - about 30 years.
MURRAY McCULLY - Foreign Affairs Minister
                        30 years, yeah.
CORIN What is the significance of that in terms of the relationship?
MURRAY I think it underlines what I call the new normal in the relationship with the US. We have managed to, I think, get into a place where the relationship is out of political contention. We’re not moving around on the nuclear legislation, and people are focused on how they can build better relationships and cooperate more.
CORIN So is it back to where it was before at the ANZUS bust-up?
MURRAY No, it’s not, because we’re not part of the ANZUS alliance. We remain suspended from that, and this government’s policy is that we’ll have an independent foreign policy, but we should obviously try and have the best possible relationship with the US, and we’ve been working our way through a new sort of relationship.
CORIN There is still one, sort of, cog to come, though, isn’t there? They could send a Coastguard vessel here, and John Key a couple of years ago did sort of float that idea. Is that still an offer in front of the Americans?
MURRAY That’s something that is entirely in their hands. They obviously decide what to do with their own vessels, and if they were to indicate they wanted to do something of that sort, we’d obviously go through the normal processes.
CORIN You’ve just been there. Have you had any indication from them that they might do that?
MURRAY It wasn’t that sort of visit. I was meeting the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, for the first formal engagement and his incoming Assistant Secretary, Daniel Russell, and we were obviously looking at broader issues, rather than that sort of discussion.
CORIN It’s not something we would push, though? Diplomatically, is it something we wait and just hope that they might do?
MURRAY I don’t think we need to hope. It’s something that’s entirely in their hands. I’ve been very satisfied with the progress we’ve made in the relationship in the last five years or so. We’ve made a conscious decision to try and build trust and confidence, to behave in a way that would be predictable, to make sure that where we had differences, we managed those differences respectfully and well, and I think that’s got us into a good space with the United States, and now we’ve got to focus on the trade deal that Tim Groser is working on, TPP. I don’t think we want to bring distractions into that process unnecessarily. As I say, it’s in the US’ court to decide what  they want to do.
CORIN That’s interesting because I just wonder about our anti-nuclear policy. Where does that fit in terms of our foreign policy and our projection to the world? Are we still proud of that? Do we still promote that when we present our foreign policy?
MURRAY I think it’s something that we’re known for, and the government that I’m a part of made it clear that we wouldn’t change it, that we would regard it as an important part of our legacy.
CORIN But is it something we want to promote? And I just raise the issue because Terence O’Brien, former diplomat, he raised in an article just recently, saying that in the Foreign Affairs Statement of Intent, the Foreign Affairs Annual Report, no mention of the anti-nuclear policy in those two important documents, which, as he points out, are there for overseas consumption to see what our foreign policy is. So do we not want to promote it anymore?
MURRAY Well, I haven’t noticed that my counterparts overseas have been pouring their way through that documentation in the way that Mr O’Brien has. I think that they tend to rely on what we say to them directly. I’m-
CORIN So you’re saying to them directly that it’s still an important part of our identity?
MURRAY Yes, it is, and as far as the US is concerned, we’ve made it clear that it’s not something we’re prepared to negotiate on.
CORIN Just one more thing on the US in terms of our relationship. Any talk or discussion in your recent visit about sending troops here? Leon Panetta did raise that issue. Have you had any more discussions about what that could look like?
MURRAY No, not at this stage. But, look, I think we are going to have quite a big-picture look at our peacekeeping obligations going forward. We’ve just had our people coming back from lengthy deployments in Timor Leste, also in the Solomon Islands and, of course, Afghanistan. That’s all happened just in the last few months. So we’ve obviously got more people at home than we’ve had for a very, very long time. I think there will be some places where we’ll get asks, and we’ll go through the normal process which involves a Cabinet decision on that front.
CORIN So, yeah, what might that look like? What sort of a size of contingent would we send?
MURRAY I think that’s all entirely speculative. We have peacekeepers in lots of different places at the moment. We’ve got people who have been affected around Syria recently. The MFO is not all that well known. We’ve had people in the Sinai for over 30 years.
CORIN But do we have to do something different? I know there’s a review of the peacekeeping capabilities. Do we have to change the way we do it in order to be able to help, say, in the Middle East, as you’ve mooted?
MURRAY No, I don’t. I think we have a well-known brand, a well-known capability. New Zealanders, I think, are amongst the world’s best in this role, which is why they’re highly sought after. And, as I say, that’s a question we should expect to be asked of us from time to time.
CORIN All right, if we could move to China. So, if you could explain to me. So, we’ve got our strategic military alliance, not alliance, but relationship with the US. That is in very good shape. Yet, our key trading partner and our future alliance is with China. How do we marry those two together?
MURRAY We need to be thoughtful and strategic about how we do that, but I don’t see this as a problem. I see it as an opportunity, and indeed that was reinforced in my conversations with the United States officials last week. They’re looking at China and trying to work out how they’re going to engage more positively with China and other parts of Asia as well. The process of rebalancing is one that they’re thinking about. Now, you would have seen a report the other day that President Xi is going to be meeting for a couple of days with President Obama. That is a very different approach from the ones we’ve seen recently from the US, and I think that it tells you the US is thinking hard about how it’s going to engage here.
CORIN But there is potential for conflict in the region. China, at the very least, wants to be a regional superpower, and the US is pivoted into that, in the Asia-Pacific region. And you’ve got the South China Sea, you’ve got Taiwan, you’ve got North Korea. How does NZ deal with a dispute that is inevitably going to happen in the next 20-odd years?
MURRAY Well, I think the key word is respectfully. And I guess when you’re as small as we are dealing with big players, being respectful is a pretty important default setting. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak your mind. Now, this plays out, I guess, in the clearest way at the East Asia Summit where the US has become a member and so has Russia. And so the conversations about, for example, the South China Sea has become very important. And you have to think about whether you’re going to deal with the difficult issues in a public way and engage in megaphone diplomacy, or whether you’re going to choose to deal with some of those issues in a more private way-
CORIN Do we just not take sides, though? Is that the strategy?
MURRAY It’s not about taking sides; it’s about dealing with issues on their merit. It’s what NZ’s known for. I think that we’ve got a brand that’s been built up over a long period of time for being respectful and considerate, for being constructive in the way in which we deal with issues. So we don’t just take sides; we look at the issues on their merit, and we then judge how we can best advance the case - whether we should say something openly in the public forum, whether we should engage privately to get the point across.
CORIN But can you see a situation where we might have to-? China and the US have obligations of us that they expect us to take a side. For example, could we at some point have to take a side with China that might upset the US?
MURRAY I don’t think they have that expectation of it, of us, and everything I see on both sides-
CORIN Maybe not explicit, but maybe an implicit-?
MURRAY Well, look, this is all speculative, but what I can say to you is that we judge issues on their merit, and it’s important to our reputation and brand that we should do so, and then we work out how we can best advance what we think is the right position.
CORIN Is it fair to say, though, that this issue of balancing the China-US relationship, once you throw the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in the mix as well - which China won’t be part of - is going to dominate our thinking in terms of foreign policy, how we navigate that path, because China is so important to our economic future.
MURRAY Look, it’s a consideration that’s always in our minds, and, as I say, we’re very fortunate to be part of these regional conversations brokered by ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and those sort of meetings, the ASEAN Regional Forum. And so we’ve been dealing with these sorts of issues for a long period of time, and I think the NZ approach to these has been the key to us enjoying the good relationships we have in Asia and with the US.
CORIN So, the Security Council, NZ’s making a bid to get on the Security Council. Doesn’t that then present a problem, because if we got on it, and then there’s a dispute that the Security Council might have to deal with between China and the US, we’re all of a sudden in a public forum where we do have to take sides. Do we abstain? We do have to be public in our diplomacy.
MURRAY That’s right, and that does put us in a position that is very high profile, but we’re still dealing with the same issues that we deal with today. And so, for example, on the question of Syria, we sit down and talk with the Russian Foreign Minister in a very clear and concise fashion. We understand each other pretty well on those sorts of issues. Nothing much changes. You’re just shifting the location. So I think that NZ can simply rely on doing what it does well in diplomacy, which is to think clearly and constructively and then work out what is the best way of advancing our case here, how do we do this in this environment? And I think the Security Council is something that we will do very well on. I’m confident that we’ve got a good shot at this, and it’s very important that when you run only every 20 years or so that you are able to succeed.
CORIN Just finally on that, you’ve been heavily involved in that. Is that something post-politics you would like to get involved in? I mean, is the UN somewhere you would like to head?
MURRAY Absolutely not. I’ve heard that rumour before. I can absolutely rule that out.
CORIN So no desire there, but you’re confident this is something NZ can get? I mean, it’s much more difficult now, isn’t it?
MURRAY Look, it’s important not just for NZ. It is much more difficult because the big countries are now running much more regularly. They’re annoyed that they’re not able to get as much time on the Security Council as the permanent members. That squeezes the small guys out. It’s very important for us and for the smaller countries, which are the majority of the UN membership, that we’re able to win, because our voice is the sort of voice that needs to be heard on the Council.
CORIN Foreign Minister Murray McCully, thank you very much for your time.

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