Questions face the West; the East is rising – and New Zealand looks on

Today, by the time you read this, British Prime Minister Theresa May will know whether she is staring down the barrel of electoral defeat or living, albeit badly wounded to fight another day. It is hardly inspiring to look at the fog of mystery enveloping the United Kingdom as it struggles with Brexit in all its uncertainty. Do the Conservatives or Labour know what they are doing or meant to be doing? Most likely no more than the shop keeper, the bus driver, the school teacher, or police officer doing their daily duties.

Will the U.K. be ready for Brexit on 29 March 2019 or will it have to delay?

But if we look across the English Channel to France, where the Yellow Vest revolt has entered its tenth week and has forced President Emmanuel Macron to have second thoughts about some of his more controversial policies, are things any better? France rejected the left and the right when it elected President Macron after a failed term of Francois Hollande on the left and Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, in the hope that a centrist might make more sense. Nearly two years on, it is hard to tell whether Mr Macron has had any success or not.

Will the Yellow vests become like the protesters of 1968, who ground France to a halt?

And then there is America, partially immobilized by a Trumpian shut down that shows no signs of ending and is now the longest on record. Hundreds of thousands of Federal workers who were furloughed got no pay last week. Thousands of them will be starting to seriously think about looking for alternative work in order to keep their household upright; others will be digging into their savings and wondering how long they can keep going like this before joining the thousands who will have already started looking for other work. It will not be the Democrats or the Republicans that decide this, but the thousand of furloughed workers.

The question facing America is how many vacancies in Federal jobs will have opened up due to furloughed workers quitting by the time this ends?

The dragon is rising. China is actively expanding its sphere of influence by building fake islands and then militarizing them. The old imperial vision of being a ruler of the high seas like Zheng He was in the age of imperial China is growing on President Xi Jinping, whose own ambitions are to create a dynasty not constrained by time limits rather than a President. As the dragon rises, so does the dystopian surveillance state that profiles hundreds of millions of Chinese using a vast array of computerized algorithms.

How much tighter can the Great Firewall of China get? Apparently the answer is quite a lot.

Nearer to home, one must wonder what will become of the Government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Riddled by scandal, crippled in the House by infighting, petrified of Aboriginals, asylum seekers, environmentalists and the Labor Party, Mr Morrison’s Government is struggling to make it even to the last day that it can call a General Election, due this year. But even if Labor wins, it will have a huge job ahead rebuilding Australia’s reputation on the world stage, addressing the socio-economic circumstances that have made places like Sydney among the most expensive in the west.

But can it get rid of the following, whose departure is necessary for Australia to rehabilitate itself: former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Minister for Environment Greg Hunt, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, among others?

Looking at all of this unfolding from afar it is easy to be smug in New Zealand. However we have little reason for smugness. We have far too many people dying on the roads; a weak justice system, education and social welfare reforms badly needed; stronger leadership on waste and other environmental issues and as the Queen and Prince Philip grow ever older, constitutional reform looms as an indecipherable shape on the horizon.

How will New Zealand address these many challenges? Will it continue looking on with a smug “she’ll be right attitude” or will we notice Godzone could do with a bit of work herself?

China and New Zealand

I have much time for China as a nation. Put aside the geopolitics, the politicians, their territorial ambitions, economic issues, human rights violations and so forth just for a moment. Take off your rose tinted blinkers and you have a nation whose contribution to civilization has been as great as any western power

China has made huge contributions across the course of history to civilization. From being a cradle of civilization 350,000 years ago to having a smorgasbord of ethnicities and dialects, covering one of the largest and most geographically diverse land masses in the world

China discovered gun powder around 1000AD, sometime before the Europeans realized its potential. They invented the first seismograph, which is dragon figure with 8 heads,and each one had a ball with a different weight and density. In an earthquake the strength of the shaking determined which ball would be released. Other notable inventions include the compass, paper and alcohol.

Chinese explorers such as Admiral Zheng He, who commanded expeditionary voyages throughout south and southeast Asia, western Asia and also to parts of eastern Africa. Another explorer Gan Ying may have reached Roman Syria shortly after the death of Christ.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and you have a world super power whose ambitions are as great as they were during their numerous dynasties. In military, economic, social and cultural power you have a nation looking for a suitably large sphere of influence. The difference is that with many fold more people and an established system of nations as opposed to dynasties, the rule of international law as opposed to the whim of the ruling dynasty, achieving that sphere of influence that imperial China might have had in the middle ages is no longer possible, yet the politicians – bent on greatness – try nonetheless.

New Zealand walks a delicate tight rope through the South Pacific. Whilst it is very definitely our sphere of influence, it is one that both the United States and China are keen to exert their own designs on as well.

New Zealand, like other nations, cannot do without Chinese trade. It is worth billions of dollars per annum to New Zealand and an implementation of sanctions because New Zealand upset Beijing over something is a serious matter.

But New Zealand needs to be wary of Chinese Government ambitions. It has stealthily inserted itself into the affairs of nations around the world. The South Pacific has not been spared with a new wharf being funded in Niue, the recent A.P.E.C. meeting in Papua New Guinea. It has been trying to build a naval base in and is propping up the local dictatorships.

Some of China’s actions have been brazen bullying. They have included officials storming into the offices of Papua New Guinea Prime Minister and demanding he make changes to an agreement that had been signed – Police had to be called and threatened to arrest the officials unless they left. Others have been subtle displays of soft power, but with a very definitive edge to them such as building infrastructure that smaller nations cannot afford using Chinese labour and material.

Around the Pacific its influence is spreading. New Zealand has not been an exception, and until today it looked possible that critical communications systems might have Chinese designs. The Huawei telecommunications company has been trying to establish itself as the builder of the 5G and possibly 6G networks, until today’s announcement that Spark had blocked their application. Spark, acting on the advice of the Government Communications Security Bureau, had deemed the the Chinese company to pose an unjust security risk in a time when there are growing concerns about its human rights record, treatment of media and tolerance of dissent.

The future is cloudy. How far will New Zealand go to appease China before it comes to the conclusion that it needs to make a stand for its own good? How far can it go? At some point in the relatively near future, I think New Zealand-Chinese relations might be in for a bit of a reset.

Is China interfering with New Zealand academics?

Academics at University of Canterbury have urged Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to speak out against the interference of China or Chinese nationals in the life of an academic who is an expert on their domestic affairs. The alleged interference against Professor Anne Marie Brady came to light after her Magic Weapons report into China’s application of soft power pressure in aspects of New Zealand such as education, media and politics, created ripples last year.

Ms Ardern has instructed intelligence agencies to investigate whether China has targeted Ms Brady. She says that if a report linked China to such activity then she would be prepared to act.

It would not be the first potential case of a foreign power interfering with New Zealand academics who have stumbled on in the course of their work goings on that are sensitive to said power. The tactics used have been similar to what Dr Brady says has happened to her.

To me such strong reactions indicate that the researcher has discovered something that could be criminal or politically embarrassing for a nation.

In 1999 China was accused of trying to make the police arrest protesters near a state banquet that the then Premier Jiang Zemin was due to attend. It is understood that Mr Zemin did not want to see protesters and was prepared to delay his arrival until they were moved/arrested. New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was accused of asking the police to move protesters on. In the end the police said that they acted to preemptively to prevent Chinese security officials doing something more serious.

During other visits, Chinese officials have complained about New Zealand M.P.’s namely Rod Donald, Russel Norman and others from the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand.

In other incidents, Sajo Oyang, a Korean fishing company with vessels operating out of Lyttelton, is thought to have been behind intimidatory behaviour around investigations into alleged human rights abuses on those vessels. Whilst this does not appear to have involved the South Korean Government, the characteristics of the intimidatory behaviour appear to have been similar to that suffered by Dr Brady. At the time of these occurrences, Indonesian crew on the vessels had left the vessels and sought legal assistance over the human rights abuses they allege to have suffered.

Will New Zealand politicians have the gonads to speak out and say that this is not acceptable behaviour? I would like to think so, but I have my doubts based on past refusals to condemn activity of a bullying nature by other nations – most China. The most likely resistance would come from the Green Party Members of Parliament. The New Zealand First Members of Parliament who were so principled during their time on the Opposition and cross benches appear reluctant to continue standing on it. Labour Members of Parliament might have their hands tied by the neoliberal party it has become and its departure from that of Walter Nash and Peter Fraser.

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?


Don’t expect anything historic at Trump-Kim summit

As I was typing this last night, news was breaking of Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Singapore for a historic summit with President Donald Trump of the United States.

So much rides on what will happen in Singapore on Tuesday. So much depends on how the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim goes. But New Zealand, like the rest of the world need to be realistic about the prospects. We also need to harbour a healthy doubt until verified by neutral sources that Kim has indeed kept his promises made in the last few months.

I certainly have my doubts. Mr Trump is reactionary. Mr Kim is calculating. Mr Trump has the most powerful military in the world, but needs to be mindful of South Korea, whose capital Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean guns. Mr Kim’s military might be short on equipment, poorly trained and led, but it has the vast power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to prop it up.

Not I believe war is going to break out. I don’t, but much as I would like to see the Korean peninsula become a nuclear free zone I do not believe that this is going to happen.

How do we know that Mr Trump’s presidential body guards and Kim’s guards will not have a fight? How do we know that one or the other will simply not turn up on the day and leave Singapore looking really embarrassed at having this fall over flat for no fault of their own?

I do not believe that the purported closure of Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility actually went ahead. How do we know that the explosions caught on video were actually at the Punggye-ri site? And if they were? How do we know that these buildings – some of which looked more like domestic tool sheds or something one might have done pottery in – were actually used for nuclear weapons purposes? We do not.

My view is that Punggye-ri is very much still functioning. The site might be closed for repairs following the large nuclear test last year, which generated an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, but I doubt very much that it is closed for good.

It is well known if you believe the media, that Mr Trump has not done very much preparation. Given that this is a one in a life time opportunity to end one of the worlds longest running wars, make more stable the last active front line in Cold War geopolitics and potentially denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, these are very concerning claims make. And yet, given Mr Trump’s impulsive, child like attitude towards global diplomacy and world leaders, not actually dreadfully surprising.

Mr Trump left the G.7. early to get away from an international meeting that showed America at its least trustful, divisive worst. But he is now heading into another one where a wrong move by either side could have long lasting complications for global security long after Mr Trump leaves office and possibly cost Mr Kim a chance at solidifying himself as the next “Dear Leader”. He is heading into a meeting where the hand of China is the real power behind Mr Kim – China can crush Kim virtually overnight if it wants to, except that Mr Kim and his North Korean regime serve a useful purpose for Beijing by preventing a democratic Korean Peninsula existing all the way to the Yalu River.

So, I wait, like many others, with interest to see what will happen on 12 June 2018. Will a ray of sunlight break through the dark clouds lurking in international geopolitics, or we see a distant flash of lightning?