Treading the South Pacific foreign policy tight rope


Over the years New Zealand has been involved in many events on the world stage. Most for the right reasons and a few for somewhat questionable reasons. New Zealand has – depending on the Government of the day, said we have interests overseas and closer to home in the South Pacific.

When one looks at the major problems around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Europe, New Zealand is a comparatively minor player. Most of those problems are not ones worth investing our time, money or resources in. Our time, money and resources are best invested in the South Pacific, which is our proverbial back yard. And there are good reasons for doing so.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

A good example of this was Papua New Guinea’s decision to import 40 Maserati vehicles for A.P.E.C. which was held over the weekend just gone. Despite not being able to properly fund its social welfare, education or health systems, Papua New Guinea, with China’s help was able to somehow spend tens of millions of dollars on a three day talk fest that wound up being a farce.

A.P.E.C. was meant to be a summit to talk about the economic challenges facing the Asia Pacific region. Instead it became a U.S./China debating competition. The tensions rose to the point that Chinese officials barged into the Papua New Guinean Prime Ministers office and demanded changes to something that had been agreed to and only left when threatened with arrest. No joint statement was agreed to by the delegations and the other nations including New Zealand were reduced to being spectators to a super power argument.

Few of the issues on the agenda that need tackling would have been.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. The bulk of our foreign policy effort should be in the South Pacific. New Zealand should be showing that we are their best friends.

And in terms of understanding the underlying problems, the culture and the needs of these nations, New Zealand and Australia are best placed to do so.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. The United States is expanding the deployment of U.S. forces in Australia, which is part of a change in doctrine that President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barak Obama instigated to counter Chinese influence in the South Pacific.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talked about protecting the South Pacific nations maritime and sovereign interests. I found that interesting since alongside Chinese influence, the next biggest threat to their sovereignty is environmental degradation making the smallest of them uninhabitable – something the U.S. Government of Donald Trump all but denies existing.

So, tell me now. Who has the the South Pacific’s interests most at heart? The U.S.?
China? Or New Zealand and (maybe) Australia?

 

Antarctica’s geopolitical storm: With New Zealand in the eye


New Zealand is a critical jump off point for nations sending supplies, personnel to Antarctic research facilities. Christchurch International Airport hosts the New Zealand and American Antarctic operations. It is an ideal location as one of the closest airports in the Southern Hemisphere able to land Antarctic bound aircraft with the American McMurdo base near to the New Zealand Scott Base, named after British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who died in an ill fated expedition to beat Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden to the South Pole in 1912.

With oil and mineral resources on the wane in some parts of the world, nations are starting to eye up Antarctica. Exploration has not yet shown what minerals or energy sources exist down there, but the untapped reserves are thought to be considerable. With the potential for a minerals race in which nations try to find a way around the legal and physical hurdles, a very real thing, it the last geographic bastion free from economic development may be in jeopardy.

Nations such as China are becoming interested in what exists down there. China has no claim to the ice and no national presence in the way that New Zealand or the United States have, but that has not stopped significant interest being expressed.

New Zealand’s Ross Sea Dependency is about to have its sovereignty tested. With more international interest in the area, the potential for finding ships that have no good reason to be in those waters is going to increase. With that comes the potential for conflict. Thousands of kilometres away from civilization and in some of the coldest, most hostile waters in the world Royal New Zealand Navy frigates might find themselves confronting ships from bigger, more aggressive powers who have not the same regard as we do for the rule of international law.

How would we react? Would we escort them out of the area? Arrest them? Open fire?

The Ross Sea has a range of important marine species in its waters, some of which are in serious decline elsewhere. Opening up Antarctica would potentially threaten them.

But there also exists the potential for a major environmental disaster. Aside from many nations not having the same regard for the Antarctic environment that New Zealand does, many are also less prepared for dealing with the stark environmental challenges of doing anything at all down there. If, for example there was a major oil or fuel leak from a ship or rig or other facility somewhere, it could be days before any ships could reach it, days before anyone could know the actual nature and extent of the emergency, during which time, the ability to control the damage would have significantly decreased.

We might be a small, peaceful nation trying to make our way responsibly in this world, and well done for doing so, but we need to have an honest conversation about our role in looking after Antarctica. One that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Government cleaning out non performing diplomats


The Government is set to announce a clean out of diplomats from New Zealand’s overseas missions. The announcement comes at a critical time as New Zealand attempts to adjust the country to an unsettled geopolitical environment created by Brexit, the divisive nature of current American politics, capped off by high international tensions with Iran.

One of the diplomats being pulled is Tim Groser, current ambassador to the United States. Mr Groser, prior to going to the United States was Minister for Trade in the National-led Government of former Prime Minister John Key. In that capacity Mr Groser was tasked with pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement to a fruitful conclusion. It was under Mr Groser’s watch that the many major concerns about the T.P.P.A. became known to the public and the beginning of the backlash occurred.

Mr Groser’s time in Washington D.C. does not appear to have been overly successful. Indeed one insider admitted that during his ambassadorship, the residency of the New Zealand ambassador has been “party central”, with numerous functions and parties hosted.

Mr Groser is not the only diplomat being recalled.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters believes that the idea of political appointments to the diplomatic posts is not a good look and not in New Zealand’s interests to continue. Mr Peters views Mr Groser as a political appointment because it was made by the previous National Government when Mr Key was still in office.

There are other key diplomatic posts opening up, including one in Dublin. This is a well sought after post because among other boards, it is home to the International Rugby Board, as politicians it was noted in the Government of Mr Key love to be seen with rugby royalty.

Mr Peters said that the Washington post is just one of many being reviewed and necessary recalled by the new Government. Others include a possible posting to London.

I believe that New Zealand needs to put more focus on building diplomatic ties with African and Latin American countries more than anywhere else. Neither of these two regions is very well understood by New Zealand, despite growing communities of Latin American nationalities and African nationalities in the country. Aside from sharing New Zealand’s wariness of war, Latin America also offer opportunities in trade and have been one of the few international bright spots in the last few years with the end of the Colombian civil war. And Africa, for all its mystery, remains the least understood part of the world in just about all respects. Trying to better understand this continent of mystery when some Governments take an ivory tower view of thinking they know best, when they do not, is not only a really good idea, it is essential.

Defence white paper a sign of changing times: Part I


In this two part series I look at the new Defence White Paper which sets out the threats and opportunities New Zealand faces and how the Defence Force contributes to dealing with them. In this part, I examine the context of the White Paper.

During the Cold War, a defence white paper would have focussed on the threat of nuclear war posed by Russia and China. The threat posted to South Pacific islands would have been largely based on whether the former U.S.S.R. or China could gain a foothold there using Indonesia as a proxy (Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the failure to condemn it still ranks as one of New Zealand’s biggest foreign policy fails).

Following the withdrawal from the A.N.Z.U.S. alliance, and the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior a rapid reassessment of who our real allies are would have been undertaken. Australia were still our best ally, the British were friendly, whilst the United States and France were very much on the outer in terms of military co-operation. In terms of the South Pacific nations, respect for New Zealand soared.

33 years later the Chinese threat still exists, as much from military installations being established under the guise of military activity. Concerns over the influence of their telecommunications companies exists, with Huawei being subject to trading restrictions in the U.S. over whether their devices can steal information. Relations with Russia remain cordial – New Zealand does not feature so highly in Russia’s foreign policy estimates, which is reflected in our trading arrangements with Moscow.. The relations with France have largely healed without either side forgetting what happened in July 1985.

It is the South Pacific where things have changed the most. The Solomon Islands, which in 2003 was considered a failed state by the Government’s of New Zealand and Australia, was the subject of a combined mission to restore the rule of law. Whilst this has been successful and was wound up in 2017, there is a risk other nations such as Papua New Guinea may require such assistance in the future. A combination of corruption in the Government, weak economies, internal instability – some islands are virtually lawless make ideal situations for organized crime and possibly the facilitation of terrorist elements in the worst case scenario

Whilst New Zealand has identified potential risks in the Middle East, it is acknowledged that our influence is limited. Other than be an advocate for the rule of law there is not a lot New Zealand can really do. The real movement , a change of focus in foreign policy, has been to make the Pacific a top priority. This seeks to acknowledge the considerable risks of further destabilization, the influence of big power politics which have not in the past been very well received and New Zealand traditional role as a peace keeper, proponent of international law and human freedoms.

Now a third element – the environment – has been added. This acknowledges that many of New Zealand’s South Pacific neighbours have  a day-to-day struggle with the sea. Salinisation of the land means crops are failing. Parts of some very low lying nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu are inundated twice daily with the tidal regime and flood completely in storms or even tropical depressions. Unless this is addressed, some of these places may be uninhabitable in a couple of decades, or become ungovernable, again creating a security risk.

New Zealand should keep itself at arms distance from U.S., Russia


A while ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that she thought the nuclear moment of our present time is climate change. She said it, stating that New Zealand needs to take a decisive leadership role in reducing our carbon emissions. An admirable thing and certainly something that needs to happen.

But it is not the nuclear moment of NOW. That is playing out in the Middle East and has the potential to become much more immediate than climate change, which – whilst affecting us already – does not (so far as I know)have the ability to usher in a global holocaust in a matter of ours. It does not have the ability to accidentally usher in a nuclear exchange before people even realize what is happening.

I honestly never thought, until about early 2014, when Russia began its military build up in Syria and started testing western resolve over Ukraine that the risk of an East-West military confrontation would revive in my life time. Whilst since 2000 the risk had certainly been growing from one year to the next, the immediacy of the danger was not there. It is now. And the causes of it are dubious to say the least.

Neither the United States or Russia are playing an entirely honest and responsible game in Syria. Both have agenda’s that are more about suiting their foreign policy ambitions than helping to end a bloody civil war that has gone on for much too long. Both have the power and the means to end it today, but the strangulation of their geopolitical objectives mean their peoples are captive to politicians being jerked around – willingly – by the military industrial complex. For this is not about Syria anymore, but about who will be the decisive power in the Middle East. This is about raw ambition.

Perhaps it is telling us something that Russia has used its veto power as one of the Permanent 5 in the United Nations Security Council to block 12 separate resolutions on Syria. Perhaps it is telling us something that none of the N.A.T.O. countries purportedly standing for the rule of international law attacked suspected chemical weapons sites before United Nations personnel could verify that that is what they actually were.

But also the danger level in this conflict brings the world as close to an international incident – an incident that could potentially trigger a nuclear exchange by accident – as any conflict during the First Cold War. An accidental attack by N.A.T.O. forces on Russia, or vice versa could very easily escalate into a world conflict. If it does not do that, at the very least it would result large scale deployment of N.A.T.O. and Russian forces including potential nuclear forces.

What the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters should be doing is telling our international partners in no uncertain terms we only abide by international law. If they want our cooperation, they need to abide by it too.

What New Zealand should be doing is four fold:

  1. Demanding all countries comply with international law – and telling them New Zealand will have no participation in anything judged to be against said law
  2. Demanding an immediate cessation to hostilities
  3. Letting United Nations inspectors in with unfettered access to all sites of concern in Syria
  4. Let Red Cross have unfettered access to all victims of war

Our nuclear moment I do not think is climate change. Our nuclear moment is stopping this war turning into a nuclear moment.

I know not what weapons World War 3 will be fought with, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones

ALBERT EINSTEIN