The geography teacher walked into our year nine classroom and barked, "open to chapter 12 in your textbook and summarise New Zealand".
Being a dominantly visual learner, I appreciated his lazy teaching style because it didn't involve him droning on and on.
This regional study of New Zealand sparked my curiosity about the country with its beautiful and dramatic landscapes. So close, but so different to our wide brown land. Five years later, I had the chance to see it all when I hitchhiked around both islands from Auckland to Milford Sound.
I have returned since to the "land of the long white cloud" a dozen times for business or holidays. More recently, as president of Polio Australia, I participated in the annual conferences of Polio New Zealand as we worked together to develop more effective assistance programs for survivors in our two countries.
This collaboration is typical of the cooperative approach between Australia and New Zealand, which sprang from both nations being former colonies of the UK and co-located on the far side of the world - a long way from the "motherland".
A special bond between our two countries was forged in the fire of WWI, where the ANZAC legend was born.
Since then, our foreign policies have usually been in lockstep under the auspices of "great and powerful friends", initially the UK, and then the US.
But over the past 10 years, the rise of a more aggressive Chinese foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region has resulted in the two nations responding quite differently to the changed circumstances.
Australia has strongly resisted China's "wolf-warrior'" diplomacy and moved to protect the country in a bipartisan way with, for example, the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act (2018) and banning Chinese telecommunications company Huawei in the same year. China retaliated with trade sanctions on many Australian exports, including coal, barley, wine, and lobster.
China also produced a list of 14 grievances against Australia, including our world-leading call for an investigation into the China origins of COVID-19. Most recently, Australia has actively countered China's latest aggressive push to turn many South Pacific nations into client states by having them sign various economic and security agreements.
So, what has New Zealand done to resist the aggressive diplomacy of China in the South Pacific? Very little.
They passively sat on the sidelines in May 2022 as China signed up the Solomon Islands to a new economic and security agreement.
In other areas of foreign policy, New Zealand has also been unhelpful. For example, in its role as a member of the Five Eyes (UK, Canada, NZ, Australia, and the US) intelligence-sharing group. New Zealand criticised the group's expanded remit to invoke the alliance on broader matters, including criticisms of China's human rights record. As a result, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced in April 2021 that "it would not sign up to any future Five Eyes joint statements critical of China". A few months earlier, their Foreign Minister Damien O'Conner naively advised Australia, "follow us and show respect for China".
New Zealand has much at stake with its high dependence on trade with China, exporting $A18 billion a year of high-quality rural products including wood, wool, meat, butter, and cheese.
In the countries trying to resist China's aggressive foreign policy, there is a feeling that New Zealand has "let the side down". However, in 2022 there has been a welcome policy shift toward helping protect the security of the South Pacific region.
On May 31 this year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited the US for talks with President Joe Biden. They issued a joint statement warning that a Chinese military base in the South Pacific (Solomon Islands) "by a state that does not share our values or security interests, would fundamentally alter the region's strategic balance and pose national security concerns to both countries".
The statement went even further, noting China's menacing of Taiwan, oppression in Hong Kong and human rights violations of the Uighur minority in north-western China.
The Chinese foreign minister spokesman, Zhao Lijiang, was unimpressed, and New Zealand received a diplomatic dressing down. He also warned the nation to adhere to its independent foreign policy.
Following their dalliance with China to protect New Zealand's economic interests, our neighbour has now recognised that the threat to its security is of much greater significance.
As a result, New Zealand has realigned its foreign policy priorities, shifting closer to Australia, and reviving the true spirit of ANZAC.
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