New Zealand is used to walking a tight rope between China and the United States. A lurch into one camp or the other will draw ire from either Washington or Beijing as well as alarm that the country that made a name for itself with anti-nuclear legislation, and trying to stand up against Apartheid despite a divisive rugby tour, seems to have lost its moral spine. But as the demands of the two super powers start to encroach on our sovereignty, the time is coming for either a very difficult choice, or a brave new third way.
For decades as an emerging market and now as a super power, China’s influence in New Zealand affairs has – for better or for worse – grown exponentially. It’s economic footprint is truly global, requiring resources from all over the world – oil from Nigeria, the Middle East and Sudan; rare earth minerals for electronics from mines all over Africa, and increasingly South America and central Asia. From New Zealand it sources coal, timber and dairy products. In return New Zealand imports vast quantities of Chinese made electronics, steel and other goods.
But there is a steep price to pay for investing so much as we have in China. The country has an appalling human rights record, is mired in endemic corruption that has led to a massive crackdown which is targetting all of the wrong people – human rights activists, lawyers, dissidents, artists, academics – which the West, including New Zealand is largely turning a blind eye to. The current furore over trade because New Zealand decided to investigate the quality of the massive glut of steel being imported from China is likely to be forgotten in the next few months as New Zealand officials rush about trying to mend fences so that the difficult tango with Beijing can continue.
Before it does, other issues may pose a challenge such as China’s ignorance of the Hague ruling on the hotly contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Here the risk of an accidental military confrontation has increased significantly since an artificial island with a harbour and airfield was constructed. New Zealand politicians would much rather stay out of this increasingly antagonistic spat, but may soon have to decide who to support.
Following World War 2, a war in which New Zealand’s survival against Japan owed much to the United States, New Zealand’s geopolitical orientation was fundamentally altered. Britain was too busy rebuilding after a hugely damaging and costly war to have much time for its colonies. With wartime allies now becoming Cold War foes, and substantial opportunities for trade with Uncle Sam just starting to be realized, it was realized that for the foreseeable future investing in America was the way to go. Until the anti-nuclear legislation was passed in 1985, New Zealand and the United States maintained good relations. Since 2001, things have slowly begun to thaw with the odd setback here and there – notably over the Iraq War – but the nature has changed with corporate interests increasingly trying to exert their influence.
The United States however has major challenges facing it. For the last generation it has been slowly declining in global respect. This decline is not because of a reduction in military spending, but because wastage in the political system combined with a changing geopolitical environment, . Increasingly America has sought to influence other nations by enticing them with free trade agreements that more and more look like corporate dictates, given their sheer complexity (since when was 6,000 pages necessary for a genuine F.T.A.). It has also tried to entice nations into joining its increasingly muddled “War on Terrorism”, where two of its major “allies” are accused of funding and arming Daesh.
But perhaps New Zealand does not need to support either. In the past I have alluded to a “third way”, where New Zealand grows a spine and puts its own interests first. Perhaps it is time to revisit that.