COMMENT:

The Ardern Government is carrying out the most radical repositioning of New Zealand's foreign policy since the nuclear-ships dispute with the US and UK in the 1980s and the start in the 1990s of what became the "Four Firsts" with China.

The only question is whether the Prime Minister is herself aware of what's going on.

Just before Christmas, Winston Peters flew to Washington to, in his words, "share our concerns and enlist greater US support in the region closest to New Zealand," the southwest Pacific.

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"New Zealand," Peters said, "is acutely mindful of, and archly concerned by, the asymmetries at play in the region at a time when larger players are renewing their interest in the Pacific, with an attendant element of strategic competition. The speed and intensity of those interests at play are of great concern to us."

"The Pacific Reset," Peters went on, "reflects New Zealand's response to the increasingly contested strategic environment, in which more external actors are competing for influence."

Peters didn't need to name the "external actors" making New Zealand "archly concerned", because he named everyone else as part of the solution.

That involves close co-operation between New Zealand, Pacific Island countries, Australia and the US, plus "other partners with historic links in the region, such as Japan, the EU, UK and France."

In contrast, China was described as a "new actor" in the region, with which New Zealand was prepared to work "on terms that take account of the Pacific's needs, where quality projects are sustainable and delivered transparently". Such public provisos were not issued to anyone else.

Travelling to Washington to deliver a coded condemnation of Beijing's activities in the Pacific and seeking greater US engagement can only be interpreted in both capitals as firing a shot across the new superpower's bow.

Extraordinarily, Jacinda Ardern revealed her Cabinet had never discussed Peters' bold new move, nor had she even been given a copy of his speech in advance.

Not since David Lange unilaterally announced Anzus was dead at Yale University on Anzac Day 1989 has such a major foreign policy shift been made without Cabinet involvement — and Lange was at least the Prime Minister and expressing, perhaps insensitively, something that was already true in practice.

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This is not to criticise Peters' new approach. Supporters of New Zealand's traditional Five Eyes relationships should be delighted. The question is whether Ardern's Labour Party is happy with her Government's new stance and therefore whether anyone can rely on it.

During Ardern's absence over summer, Peters again acted boldly, declaring New Zealand in favour of hard Brexit after Theresa May's soft Brexit deal was so roundly rejected on Wednesday morning.

Peters' stance is probably globally unique but not unreasonable in terms of New Zealand's interests. If the UK crashes out of the EU, it will be desperate for friends and also able to immediately negotiate Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

If New Zealand follows the strategy it used with China in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it can hope to get itself to the front of the queue and conclude a deal perhaps within months.

It is surely with this in mind that Trade Minister David Parker and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade have already begun public consultations on priorities for negotiations with the UK.

But, just as with the US and China, the very boldness of Peters' comments — risking the ire of not just the EU, with which New Zealand is also negotiating an FTA, but also May's struggling Government — raises questions of whether they reflect the Prime Minister's thoughts, if any, on New Zealand's attitude towards the EU and the UK.

Ardern named only four "friends" in her big foreign policy speech back in March: Australia, the US, the UK and China. Neither "Europe" nor the "European Union" appeared even once. This seems consistent with Peters' emphasis.

Confusing matters, however, officials later suggested excluding Europe may just have been an oversight by Beehive speechwriters rather than a deliberate statement of policy.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister's Office highlighted the EU rather than the UK FTA as Ardern's major priority for her trip to Europe next week.

Uncertainty won't do. The strategic rivalry between China and the US and the EU-UK divorce will have enormous impacts on both New Zealand's export effort and long-term security.

Peters' strategy could make sense but only if it is that of the New Zealand Government and not of a rogue Foreign Minister.

Greater clarity from the Prime Minister would be useful as she heads to London, Brussels and Davos for talks with Europe and the world's major economic and political players next week.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.