US military chief in New Zealand


The United States Secretary of Defense is visiting New Zealand just days after being appointed to the position. Mark Esper, who replaces former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis is on a five nation trip where conversations will most likely centre around Iran and China.

Whilst so early in the set, I cannot imagine Mr Esper immediately wanting concessions from New Zealand, I do not want New Zealand to be involved in another U.S. military misadventure. New Zealand might be – and should be – friends with the United States, but keeping a bit of distance. I am quite sure most New Zealanders want nothing to do with a potential war against Iran that will most likely achieve at best significantly worsening U.S relations with the Muslim world.

At best a war with Iran will be limited to the United States and Iran. The latter would probably use its considerable special forces to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian backed militias might launch a rocket barrage at Israel. A greater fear is whether Russia decides to become involved or not. Russia could simply move military assets into Iran or Syria without actually using them as a warning to the United States. But Russian military commanders and politicians have at times made ominous references that a war against Iran would be a catastrophe. At worst it could result in a Russian military response against American forces – at which point a nuclear confrontation is not out of the question.

Perhaps more immediately problematic for New Zealand is China’s growing military assertiveness. It has built an artificial island in the Spratley Islands with an airfield and facilities for ships to dock at. China has since stationed military patrol and combat aircraft there. As vital shipping lanes pass through these waters on the way to/from various nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, the United States has sought to dissuade China from further expansion.

China’s military expansion is dangerous because it is aligned with more subtle moves such as massive investment in countries around the world. Some critics argue China is literally buying up other nations by establishing Government owned companies that then set up operations in other countries and buy their way into major assets – in Westland recently a dairy company was sold to a Chinese Government controlled company.

New Zealand sees this in Fiji and other small Pasifika nations. A few months ago there was a controversy about a resort being built on Fiji and the destruction of large tracts of coral reef to enable boat access to the resort. When locals and New Zealand expatriates living there tried to remonstrate the owners got aggressive and there were scuffles. Other countries such as Tonga have significant debt to China, which has led to concerns about Beijing’s attempts to extract leverage. And in Vanuatu, although both countries denied reports, there were suggestions that China has been looking for a place to establish a military base.

Whilst New Zealand needs to be careful not to anger either the U.S. or China, it needs to be clear that the south Pacific is the chief domain of New Zealand and Australia. More than it does either of them, the well being of these little island nations is paramount to our well being.

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.

The danger of going cashless


Recently I read in that in the United States there are cities that are starting to push back against going cashless. In a backlash that some have called backwards, cities such as  Philadelphia have moved to reject cashless stores.

It is possible to see why some people think cashless is great. It means less dead weight in ones wallet for starters and time is saved handling the financial transaction of a purchase more quickly if it is done using a card. Security concerns about carrying cash around, properly counting the till at the end of each night and being sure no money has been taken by employees is a justifiable second.

But I can see why there are concerns about going cashless. They range quite extensively from privacy concerns, to socio-economic status, but also vulnerability despite intensive and extensive security measures to cyber attacks/hacking. Specifically:

  • Every financial transaction using a card leaves a digital footprint. In a world where privacy concerns are becoming an increasingly potent issue, the ability of a few tech companies operating under a different set of laws to your country to mine the data stream from your card raise serious questions
  • The same digital footprint also raises significant cyber security concerns that were underlined a few years ago when a single hacking strike caused disruption across the world. With digital data theft on the rise and an apparent inertia among governments to work out how to reach a common agreement, these issues are only going to grow.
  • In America millions of people do not have the means to get a credit card or even have a bank account. Due to many possibly working jobs where payment is cash only, or having issues with credit or not having the education to know how to obtain such things, there is a risk that going cashless will create an under class of citizen.

In New Zealand, going cashless would promote similar issues. Whilst there are certainly people who do not use cash at all and managed to get by on credit, debit and EFTPOS cards, the lower echelons of society have similar problems as those in the United States. Yet, it is a distinct possibility, if you believe M.Y.O.B.

The problems in New Zealand primarily concern rural communities where banking services are often at a minimum and cash is a significant part of their financial system. A little town like Fairlie in south Canterbury might not have a bank and thus people would have to travel to Geraldine or Timaru to conduct banking business. Whilst all businesses now offer EFTPOS and most offer credit card services, despite the urgings of M.Y.O.B., I cannot see New Zealand disposing of cash as a form of money in the immediate future.

Also cash is the likely method of financial transactions among community groups. A group fundraising is not likely to have anything other than cash and what a lot of people consider to be a financial dinosaur now: the cheque book. As the treasurer of such a group in Christchurch the cheque book is often the preferred way of handing over significant money to a donee. We donate the hard cash in our account for safe keeping and then write the equivalent cheque and hand it over.

So, what do you want?

To have a completely cashless nation, at the risk of a financial under class like the United States or a country with a balanced system that is also a bit more secure against attacks on the digital system?

Little appetite for war against Iran


Ever since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal the risk of a war between the two nations has increased. Ayatollah Khamenei began to increase the rhetoric against the United States, saying how it wanted war. President Donald Trump believed that the deal was fundamentally flawed from the start, and at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who believed it compromised Israeli national security, withdrew from it. Initially Iran said it would continue to comply with it in full. But when it was revealed that the other powers signatory to the agreement were not complying with their end of the deal in full, Tehran immediately said that should they not resume within 60 days it would withdraw.

Which is precisely what Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump wanted. But now with the war hawks attempting to ratchet up the drum beat of war to another level, it is time to look at why the hawks could be in for a brutal surprise should Iran and the United States come to military blows.

There is a distinct difference though between the Iraq War and how any war against Iran in terms of the support that the United States has. Whilst many nations friendly to America expressed considerable reservations or expressed condemnation of its 2003 invasion of Iraq, it did have the support of a few nations. They included the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, Iceland, Portugal, Japan and South Korea, along with a number of eastern European, central Asian and Latin American countries.

In many respects the United States and Israel would be facing a very different foe to the demoralized Iraq that was invaded in 2003. Among the primary reasons:

  • Iran has not suffered a major conflict since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and has rebuilt
  • Iraq’s military was severely depleted, badly trained, paid and resourced – much of its equipment was useless for lack of parts, ammunition
  • Iran has significant powerful allies including Syria and Russia
  • Its compliance with the nuclear deal means the grounds for military action based on a grave and present threat are non-existent, which American allies generally recognize
  • International support for a war against Iran is almost non-existent
  • Much of the promotion of a hard line against Iran has more to do with bolstering the military industrial complex and certain politicians than achieving any real good
  • The risk of an Iran-U.S./Israel conflict becoming a direct clash between the U.S. and Russia is real

Iran is suffering under heavy American sanctions and diplomatic pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. However several nations including South Korea still do so. It has refused to have anything to do with the petro-dollar and some are suggesting it might be investing in crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.

None of this is to say that the Iranian Government or the Ayatollahs are saints. They are not. Iran has one of the most appalling records of any nation in the Middle East when it comes to womens rights, the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh are regularly imprisoned without justification, and almost always on trumped up charges such as posing a threat to the Islamic Republic

Nor is it to say that Iran respects its neighbours. During the Iraqi sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 it armed militias to destablize the country and disrupt the attempt to restore the country. It arms Hezbollah militants fighting against Israel, by supplying them with Qassam and Katyusha rockets, drones and small arms. It point blank refuses to recognize the state of Israel in any form. Iran may have interfered in the Afghanistan war and its chief regional rival is Saudi Arabia.

But if we take all of this and acknowledge the willingness of Russia to exercise veto powers when U.N. Resolutions against Iran are proposed, the extent to which Russia has enabled Hezbollah to be armed, and so forth, it is clear Russia has a significant stake in Iran’s well being.

To the extent it could be compared with America’s in Israel.

National’s foreign policy plan is tone deaf


On Monday National released a policy document outlining its foreign policy. A mixture of old well known positions, with a few surprises such as bypassing the United Nations to impose our own sanctions, the document is for the most part, vintage National.

The announcement comes at a time when New Zealand is feeling the squeeze by both the United States and China, both indirectly and directly. Indirectly as both continue a trade war that has had the markets on edge, New Zealand has been exposed to the turbulence as much as other countries. And directly as it tries to find common ground with other nations on dealing with hate and lone wolf terrorism.

Interestingly enough, Mr Bridges also appeared to signal his intent to woo China, by doubling trade with it to N.Z.$60 billion per annum. I assume this would mean substantial growth in Chinese-New Zealand tourism, investment in dairy despite it having clearly peaked, further expansion of Huawei and other technology firms, input into education and property.

To me, this is an incredibly tone deaf foreign policy. It ignores our core role as one of the key players in the South Pacific where we should be investing 80% of all the time, money and resources that go into foreign affairs. These are the nations whose well being most seriously impacts on our national security behind Australia. These are the nations with the biggest geographical and cultural links to New Zealand. The Pacific nations of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and to a lesser extent Vanuatu are where we go on holiday in our thousands.

Perhaps Mr Bridges is trying to woo both super powers at once in an attempt to keep them onside. If so it is a risky proposition. For all their supposed friendship, neither the United States or China understands the delicate state of the South Pacific, why it should be New Zealand’s top priority and nor do they care. They might ask why they should, and the answer is fairly simple: as one of the leading nations in the South Pacific and one with a significant Pasifika population these nations are our  backyard and long time friends, and for us to be well means they must be well.

Perhaps Mr Bridges believes that America is still the same America that won international respect by providing the armaments and large ground forces to help the Allies win World War 2. And that if this is the case, America by default is a force for the good, cannot do any wrong and must be supported at any rate.

It does not change the fact that America is turning itself into something of an international pariah with its belligerent behaviour towards friends and foes alike. Far from trying to wind up the War on Terrorism, Mr Trump has turned it into an exercise of Pax Americana. More strongly left-wing types would use the word hegemony to describe what they believe America is trying to impose, and perhaps that might yet reach a point where it becomes accurate, but there are rays of hope. Moderate Republicans and Democrats alike are becoming exasperated with Mr Trump and realize America risks alienating large tracts of the international community if it continues down this path.

New Zealand needs to be careful with China. It has invested vast sums of money into this country. It competes with others for the rights to build infrastructure and puts significant effort into building ties with political parties, notably National and A.C.T. This is not a red neck screaming “Yellow Peril!” at the top of his lungs. Nor is it an anti China statement to criticize the Chinese Government, but 2 weeks out from the 30th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and with the Great Fire Wall of China as strong as it has ever been, we need to remember China is not a democracy – it is an authoritarian regime that will hang on to its power using whatever means are necessary.