On Saturday, if the polls are accurate, the businessman-turned-politician will lead the center-right National Party to win the largest share of the vote in New Zealand’s election. Although he will need to form a coalition to govern, a process that could take weeks, he will be in pole position to be the country’s next prime minister.
On the campaign trail, the 53-year-old has been coy about his foreign policy. But in office, there will be no escaping the tension between the nation where he once lived and the country he spent more than a decade courting.
As Washington and Beijing increasingly vie for influence in the Asia-Pacific, it is becoming harder for nations in the region to ignore the contest. Both superpowers have been leaning on New Zealand to take more of a stand.
Under the current center-left Labour government, New Zealand has slightly hardened its line on China, expressing concern over Beijing’s increasing military strength in the region and condemning alleged Chinese interference in New Zealand’s domestic affairs.
But Luxon could soften that stance by returning to a more business-first approach with Beijing, some close to him say. And that could increase pressure from traditional partners in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, where New Zealand has at times come under criticism.
Luxon declined an interview request, citing his tight schedule in the days leading up to the Oct. 14 election. But when asked about China at a news conference this week, the National Party leader told The Washington Post he would not alter New Zealand’s relations with its biggest trading partner.
“On foreign policy the Labour government and National government are very aligned,” he said, adding that both parties stood up for national sovereignty and the rule of law. “We raise our concerns with China in particular when we need to in private, and publicly we do so in a consistent manner. But we also have commercial relations with China and will continue to develop those, too.”
At the same time, Luxon appeared to admit that China has changed in the decade since he began boosting travel between the two countries as the head of Air New Zealand.
“I acknowledge that geopolitics across the world have changed, particularly in our region,” he said. “It’s more contested, it’s more competitive, and we need to navigate it differently. But the principles and values by which we do our foreign policy remain the same.”
That it’s taken until a few days before the election for Luxon to expound on his China approach reflects the nonexistent role foreign policy has played in the campaign.
Instead, Luxon has been hammering Prime Minister Chris Hipkins — who assumed office when Jacinda Ardern stepped down in January — on crime and the economy.
When the outside world is mentioned, it’s usually in terms of trade, not foreign policy.
“We are a little bit protected by our remoteness,” said Brigitte Morten, a political commentator and National Party insider.
After university, Luxon joined multinational corporation Unilever’s operations in Wellington. By 2003, he had become one of the company’s top executives for North America. He lived in Chicago for five years and gained a reputation as a risk-taker with the snarky Super Bowl 2005 ad for Degree deodorant.
His strategy for Air New Zealand was less controversial. With China’s economy booming, Luxon — who took over as CEO in 2012, four years after New Zealand struck a free-trade deal with China — sought to boost travel to and from the rising power.
“There was very much a feeling that if China was embraced, then it would become ‘more like us,’ and that was a positive thing,” said John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister at the time, who is now Luxon’s political mentor.
Luxon joined Key on a 2013 trade delegation to Shanghai and announced the easing of visa restrictions for visitors from China. But he also continued to pursue more unorthodox ideas, like the reality TV show. Travel between the two nations — and the airline’s bottom line — soared.
Over the past five years, however, the United States and many of its allies have taken a dimmer view of China as its military has acted with increasing assertiveness, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2021, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom unveiled AUKUS, a partnership to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines that is widely seen as a reaction to Beijing’s military buildup.
Ardern gradually hardened her rhetoric toward China as Beijing became, in her words, “more assertive.”
Key disagrees with that characterization, insisting that China hasn’t changed. He believes Luxon will take a similarly business-first approach.
“He’s a very, very commercial guy,” Key said, noting that New Zealand’s economy is struggling. “If Chris Luxon becomes prime minister, he will be very conscious of the trading relationship we have” with China.
But Luxon would likely face pressure from Five Eyes partners to toughen rhetoric toward China, as Key said he did toward the end of his eight years in office as China’s claims to the South China Sea became more aggressive.
Resisting allies’ calls for harsher rhetoric toward China might be beneficial, however, not only for New Zealand but also for the region and the world, said Beth Greener, professor of international relations at Massey University.
With Australia increasingly adopting Washington’s hard line on China, Greener said there is an increasing need for a nation like New Zealand to be publicly neutral but privately advocate for the rules-based order.
“New Zealand becoming a small Australia — that’s not a very good ‘value add’ for anybody,” she said.
Greener said she would expect a Luxon government to strike a balance, but with more of a focus on trade with Beijing. China is by far New Zealand’s largest trading partner, buying key commodities including dairy, meat and wood products.
A few weeks ago, Luxon drew criticism for saying he would “absolutely” welcome Chinese government “Belt and Road” investment in his proposed $15 billion infrastructure program — a proposal out of step with attitudes in Washington and Canberra. He has also proposed relaxing New Zealand’s ban on foreign home-buying.
But the degree to which he can smooth business ties between the two countries also hinges on the outcome of Saturday’s election, which is based on a proportional representation system.
National will almost certainly need the support of the libertarian ACT Party, which has taken a more strident stance toward China. It may also need to partner with New Zealand First, a populist party led by Winston Peters. Peters has twice served as foreign minister — a position he could again pursue — and launched New Zealand’s “Pacific Reset” policy in 2018 to charm countries in the region as a response to China’s increased presence.
Asked on the campaign trail this week about his recent comment that he would be “open” to exploring joining AUKUS’s second pillar — the sharing of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and hypersonics — Luxon revealed a flash of anger.
“Pillar two is undefined,” he said. “Nobody knows what the hell it actually means, and until we have clarity on that, under both governments, that’s our combined position,” he added, referring to the existing New Zealand administration and the government he is likely to form.
National foreign policy spokesman Gerry Brownlee, a former foreign minister, was more forthcoming, saying the United States’ rhetoric on China wasn’t effective.
“I’m very skeptical about the hand-wringing, alarm-bell-ringing stuff that has no particular action attached to it to try to defeat some of the worst predictions that people ought to make,” he said.
Brownlee said American and Australian objections to China’s growing presence in the Pacific were hypocritical, given that Beijing was offering small island nations more immediate and concrete assistance. Asked how a Luxon government foreign policy would differ from the current Labour administration, Brownlee also pointed to a renewed focus on trade, including China.
“Over the last 15 years they’ve become substantially our major trading partners,” he said. “So we’re not in a position economically to put it at risk.”