Shane Jones: Just where is PM Jacinda Ardern positioning New Zealand?

The Prime Minister is busy on the international travel circuit - a necessary part of governing for a small trading nation like ourselves.

After imposing hermit-like status on her fellow citizens, she is now engaging with the world. It is a very different and dynamic environment.

The major powers are in flux. Global inflation is rampant; substantial food shortages loom; missiles rain down in Europe; and all this before President Xi is installed as eternal leader in Beijing. The formula that John Key and Helen Clark previously used for China no longer seems to hold water.

So what is the Prime Minister's foreign policy recipe or do we learn about it as she is on the road? The US visit would have revealed to her there are deep and powerful currents at crossed purposes in the world's most powerful nation. No doubt this will be revealed in the mid-term elections. Such internal discord should make us all nervous as it can make Uncle Sam very capricious on the global stage.

While in Washington, she ended up in the middle of a gun ownership debate. Thankfully she was not present during the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. After all, her primary role overseas is to advance our economic and sovereign interests.

Much was made of the White House visit and predictable platitudes followed. Affirmation of the importance of Western alliances, the need to safeguard democracy and other such matters. This gives the impression that the Beehive and the White House stand together. Not necessarily. Hopefully, she told her hosts that, in the absence of a trade deal enabling us to diversify our export flows, such symbolism needs to be tempered with hard economic reality.

As with all visits the Prime Minister takes, much of the focus was on her star power. Below her personality, however, it was evident she is shifting our independent foreign policy heritage.

Now she is in Europe meeting with Nato countries and seeking support for a positive trade deal between ourselves and the EU. Nato commitments are of dubious value to our essential interests. Quality trade deals, however, are crucial as our economic eggs are progressively in the Beijing basket. However, that should not be taken for granted.

Herein lies the rub: how to navigate between our Chinese economic dependence and our ties with Western allies. Why has the Prime Minister shifted the dial from the independent foreign policy stance of the past 30 years to a much closer alignment with the Nato/US crew?

Presumably, she sees enlarged threats to our national wellbeing. If so, it's time for show and tell, preferably not on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Have the Prime Minister and her advisers become giddy and lost their bearings as they sign New Zealand up to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, IPEF? An initiative promoted by the US, an addition to the alphabet soup which is the staple of international diplomacy. What value does this yield to us?

This is not a trade agreement. Apparently, it is designed to maintain a free and open region including an accent on supply chain resilience. The US pivot to Asia has been achieved, according to their Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin. What will be expected of NZ through this agreement as Washington counters Chinese influence in this region?

The natural instincts of the Prime Minister are not economic, her strong suit is talking about human rights, climate, fairness, and other liberal causes. She has a slick formula where she glides and assures everyone there's nothing to see here. Such artifice may have worked during Covid but it is extremely dangerous in matters of international affairs.

She hasn't laid out a lucid, long-term plan or strategic narrative justifying why she is changing our stance of non-alignment and independent foreign policy - a framework hard fought for by generations above the current Government. She may deny she is changing these credentials but, in diplomatic matters, it is less about what you say and more what is heard and seen.

Since 2020, domestic socio-cultural settings have been reset by her Government. It would appear our Prime Minister has decided to take this playbook on her overseas forays. She needs to be wary about being seen to be encouraging a Nato expansion into the Pacific.

She owes the public an explanation, a comprehensive account of her foreign affairs priorities. How do we disassociate her personal brand from our nation's sovereign interests? Her post-White House press conference with President Biden showed the goalposts have shifted. Her advisers need to school her up. The calculus is basic, unless the EU or US provides robust trade agreements to protect our international revenue their expectations of us should be tempered.

In the event she delivers such an account, it must be less about herself, short on liberal virtue signalling, and hard-nosed on our economic situation. No more glib gestures, no more gloss.

Much of our diplomacy in the various outposts is humdrum, occasionally there are the big calls.

The Prime Minister should address whether she now believes that our foreign policy should be driven by Nato/US security priorities. Will they look after our export receipts? Given the phase of Chinese hide-and-bide is over, what is her plan to ensure that our most important export lifeline is not compromised?

Nato-plus notions in our neighbourhood are wacky without a massive increase in our military spend-up. Such money has to be earned and to date, neither the EU or Uncle Sam seem to be interested in decreasing our reliance on China.

Perhaps her strange European diversion is designed to improve the prospects of EU trade negotiations. Be warned: diversification is a work in progress, it is underdeveloped and won't pay our immediate Covid bills. We are experts in food production and China consumes almost 40 per cent of our primary exports. The appetite continues to grow and the export revenue is absolutely necessary to our Crown coffers.

There was a time when diplomats and US presidents believed in the notion the West could change the Chinese Communist Party through WTO inclusion and further integration into the international order. The latter remains relevant, but the former is a pipe dream.

The economic rise of China over the past 30 years is now being followed by its political and military reach. Ongoing engagement from us with China remains crucial. We are not Canberra, we are not Washington, we need to be focused on our critical interests. No one owes us a living.

Naturally, there will be debates as to which values our Government should give precedence to. Presumably, they have been addressed by ministers. But who would know?

Currently, there is no clear statement as to what values the Prime Minister is elevating - and what is being repositioned in her foreign policy rejig.