In 2019, the Russian Federation and New Zealand marked the 75th anniversary since diplomatic ties between the two nations had been established. At present, when Oceania and the entire Asia-Pacific region have become the battleground for the political and economic confrontation between China and the West, the Russian Federation is preparing to join the ranks of other powerful regional players. And this may, undoubtedly, signal a new stage of New Zealand–Russia relations.
Diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and New Zealand were established on 13 April 1944, in the midst of World War II. New Zealand joined the fighting together with its former colonial ruler Great Britain, and made a significant contribution to the battle against Hitler’s Germany and its allies, Japan and Italy. Not only did New Zealanders fight in the South Pacific region but also in Europe and North Africa too. In addition, they were among the defenders of Arctic convoys, which, at times of great peril, delivered necessary shipments to the USSR despite taking constant fire from Hitler’s troops. Altogether, approximately 140,000 New Zealanders were part of the war effort and 11,928 of them died as a result. Every year, members of the local Russophone community in Wellington place wreaths at the memorial dedicated to sailors from New Zealand who defended the Arctic convoys in the capital of the nation, on 9 May. It is well known that remembering the Second World War is especially important for Russia and the memory of New Zealanders’ valiant efforts during the conflict cannot but affect the relationship between the two countries.
The USSR actively purchased agricultural products from New Zealand. In fact, at one point in time, the Soviet Union was the biggest importer of its mutton, which has always been one of New Zealand’s most important exports. At present, Russia and New Zealand are also collaborating in the agricultural sphere, and both see room for development in this area.
New Zealand is thriving, but it is a fairly small country and does not have a highly developed military sector. Therefore, this nation clearly comprehends that its security and prosperity depend on the entire Asia-Pacific region as well as the world. It also understands the importance of maintaining law and order all over the world; of rigorously abiding by the U.N. Charter and other international laws, and of resolving all disagreements by diplomatic means. Furthermore, New Zealand supports the concept of a multipolar world. Since Russia and New Zealand share similar views on the aforementioned issues, the two countries have been able to successfully collaborate with one another on the sidelines of the United Nations and of other international organizations. According to New Zealand’s leadership, the need for peace, stability and the rule of law outweighs that for cooperation with its traditional allies, such as Great Britain and the United States, which is of particular importance to the Russian Federation since it has been having significant disagreement with the West in recent years. As a result, although New Zealand is part of the Western “camp”, its relationship with Russia has remained warm. And this was evidenced by the fact that the nation was unaffected by the ban, instituted by the Russian Federation, on import of agricultural products from other Western countries.
From 2015 to 2016, Russia and New Zealand cooperated at the United Nations Security Council. It was clear at the time that there was a high level of mutual understanding and respect between the two countries, and both enjoyed working together.
International security is one of the key areas that the two nations are planning to collaborate on. The terrorist attack in Christchurch, a city in New Zealand, in March of 2019 showed that the issue of terrorism, which had seemed irrelevant to this nation before, does actually affect it. Russia is one of several countries that have gained significant experience in fighting terrorism, and its assistance could be beneficial for New Zealand’s military and law enforcement bodies.
The Russian Federation is a large country of the Pacific region, and in recent years, it has been increasing its presence in Asia-Pacific. Russia has entered the oil and gas markets of China, Japan, Korea and ASEAN members, and it has established free trade zones, as part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), with Vietnam, Singapore, etc. In the nearest future, the Russian Federation is planning on increasing its oil and gas production capacities in the Arctic region. And it is also developing the Northern Sea Route for transporting these fossil fuels. As a result, Russia’s economic presence in the Asia-Pacific will continue to increase, which means that, just as New Zealand, the Russian Federation wishes to ensure stability and development of the entire region. Both countries are intent on achieving this goal together by cooperating within international organizations, such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
As mentioned earlier, New Zealand is neither a very big or a powerful country, and its stability and prosperity have always depended on its ability to effectively cooperate with its foreign partners, to maintain good relations with its neighbors and sizable regional players, and to avoid conflict. However, at present, the country is an unwilling participant in the economic and political confrontation between the West and China. The dispute involves its traditional Anglophone allies and partners, such as the United States and Australia, who are also guarantors of security for New Zealand. The other party to the conflict is the PRC, one of the most powerful nations in Asia-Pacific that has a noticeable economic impact on New Zealand. Wellington is trying to maintain friendly relations with all of them but this is not always possible. The confrontation has adversely affected New Zealand’s economy because the nation (under U.S. pressure) was forced to stop its collaboration with Huawei, a Chinese company. Perhaps the involvement of a third player, i.e. Russia, in the Asia-Pacific game will ease the situation by freeing New Zealand from the obligation of having to constantly pick a side between China or the USA. In addition, the Russian Federation could become an influential partner for New Zealand capable of assisting and facilitating the latter in its efforts to foster economic cooperation with nations of Oceania, with whom Russia is also planning on developing ties as it continues to consolidate its position in the Asia-Pacific region.
Sofia Pale, Ph.D. of Historical Sciences, research associate with the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.