New Zealand foreign policy: China, U.S. or a third way?


SOURCE: Kathryn George

So New Zealand. The American and Chinese Governments are having an arm wrestle for influence around the world and New Zealand and the South Pacific that we like to think of as our back yard are not immune from geopolitical rivalries.

We as a nation have a choice to make and one that New Zealanders are not all that well informed about. Our options are:

  1. Do we have a rapidly expanding trade with China at the expense of human rights where Chinese interests may try to start influencing our politics and elected officials, democratic process and be potentially hugely detrimental to the environment?
  2. Or do we go with America, who will look for our assistance in increasingly questionable conflicts that are unlikely to do either country any favours, and whose politicians are beholden to corporate interests that mean the coveted trade deal that enables free trade between the two counties, is permanently unlikely?
  3. Or do we take a truly unique approach and say no thanks to both countries – we will do our own thing, just as we did in 1985 with the French?

Chinese trade interests in New Zealand are not to be underestimated to any extent. In 2018 two trade trade between the Dragon and the Kiwi was worth N.Z.$28 billion and makes China our largest trading partner. Chinese companies such as Huawei have significant interests here, as do New Zealand companies such as dairy giant Fonterra in China. Chinese tourists are a rapidly growing market and two Chinese airlines fly into Christchurch during the summer season.

But there are significant problems with China’s influence. Its reach into the South Pacific potentially destabilizes nations that are essential to New Zealand’s security where they have helped to prop up corrupt governments and lend a legitimacy to Fiji’s dictator Frank Baininarama. China’s Huawei telecommunications company is trying to get the contract to construct New Zealand’s 5G mobile network, which would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to them. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether allegations that Huawei is a front for Chinese government spies. And then there is China’s abysmal human rights record – the nation that refuses to acknowledge Tiananmen Square 30 year down the road, and which claims the massive detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims is to protect the security of the state, is also constructing a huge dystopian computerized profiling system that using a set of characteristics against which people are graded, is potentially denying millions of Chinese basic rights and support.

So, that brings us to Uncle Sam in the United States. Good ol’ Uncle Sam came to our rescue in World War 2 by stopping the Japanese advance through the southwest Pacific. After the war we were invited to join the United States and Australia in the now defunct A.N.Z.U.S. alliance, which meant visits from U.S. nuclear powered ships, nuclear tests in the Pacific were something we sent Royal New Zealand Navy ships such as H.M.N.Z.S.’s Otago and Pukaki to observe. But following the disastrous U.S. adventure in Vietnam we began to question why the U.S. seemed to think war to be such an effective foreign policy tool. We began to protest U.S. ship visits and nuclear testing policy leading to the Labour Government of David Lange banning U.S. nuclear armed and powered ships from entering our waters. N.Z.-American relations turned chilly. New Zealand-French relations pretty much stopped for a while after the latter blew up the Rainbow Warrior in the hope of dividing New Zealand.

New Zealand and American relations began to thaw in the 1990’s. President Bill Clinton offered a trade deal if we let U.S. nuclear warships back in. We said no. Following 11 September 2001, New Zealand committed the S.A.S. to Afghanistan, where it performed with distinction in the early part of the conflict. During the 2008-2017 National-led Government of John Key, relations warmed further, though concerns continued to rise about America’s propensity for starting or – in this case – continuing wars that had no foreseeable outcome. A skirmish in Bamiyan Province in 2010 that left several soldiers dead was followed by another where S.A.S. forces are alleged to have shot dead several civilians, which potentially being war crimes would have dirtied New Zealand’s very clean record in war. During the same period we became entangled in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement which was a massive so called Free Trade Agreement that 12 countries would be party to, but which potentially called for compromises in the independence of individual nations sovereignty. Regrettably New Zealand, along with China and the U.S. signed this into being.

So that leaves with the options of turn left towards China, or right towards the U.S. But does it have to be like that? SHOULD it be like that?

Not necessarily. New Zealand gained international respect in 1985 when it departed from the U.S. nuclear umbrella and struck out on its own. It was not, contrary to the assertions of politicians at the time a cop out to the U.S.S.R., though their politicians might have looked on approvingly. It was a point blank protest at the prospect of nuclear war, at the prospect that the next war might be the last thing humanity does.

We can do the same again. We can say “thank you very much for your interest, but we want to do our own thing – the South Pacific nations need our help and that is what we are going to do”. We can draw a line under relations with both by setting down a minimum level of protection for human rights, by saying the more you exceed that minimum level, the better your prospects will become. But most of all we can start looking after NEW ZEALAND interests, and if that means keeping the Dragon and the Eagle at arms length so a plucky Kiwi can do its business, so be it.

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