N.Z. in lock down: DAY 37

Yesterday was DAY 37 of New Zealand in lock down as we fight the COVID19 pandemic.

It has been interesting to look at the news from around the world these last few weeks and observe the hugely varied reactions of politicians and the public to COVID19. The diversity of reactions and responses has been quite profound. From the grim unity of New Zealanders going into lockdown to the increasingly violent division in the United States; from the quiet success of Taiwan to the flat out denialism over taking Brazil and some third world despots, the variation in the reactions and subsequent responses have been startling.

I will not concentrate on New Zealand so much as that is well documented and now receiving high praise from around the world, warranted or not. Instead I will look at some of New Zealand’s major international partners and where those partnership might go in the post-COVID19 environment.

A few days ago I examined the Australian response to COVID19 and noted that it is doing per head of capita, slightly better than New Zealand. The governments of both countries are talking to each other about how reopening the borders might happen, which is good. However, there are other nations that New Zealand and Australia should start talking to about an extended bubble. Taiwan is one of these nations. The island nation east of China has been one of the true success stories in the global campaign against COVID19. It has had just 429 confirmed cases, of which 324 have recovered with 6 deaths. No new cases have happened since 26 April. New Zealand and Taiwan have good relations and share similar democratic principles. South Korea is another one that could potentially be invited to join the bubble. It has 10772 cases of which 9072 have recovered, with new case rate per day in the single digits.

I now examine the risks posed to our small Pasifika neighbours like Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and our Melanesian neighbours in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. These little island nations might have dodged a bullet by being remote and not having large numbers of tourists arriving like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa do. All of these islands have weak health and social welfare systems, which means a potential outbreak in any of them could be absolutely catastrophic. The last serious pandemic to affect them would have been the 1918-1920 influenza, which was transported around the world by ships carrying soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe. A ship that was carrying infected New Zealand soldiers was allowed to dock in Apia during that time and 7,000 Samoans or about 1/5 of Samoa’s population then died.

It is not just these small nations that could be devastated. It is also the even smaller territories such as Wallis and Futuna, Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Kiribati, Palau and other tiny land masses could potentially have their entire populations wiped out. Because of the great risks posed to these nations, no one should be surprised that they were quick to slam their borders shut.

New Zealand and Australia need to take charge of aid to these little nations. They cannot afford the lack of transparency and the potential for agenda setting that goes with Chinese aid. Nor can we rely on American aid any for them any longer in the age of Donald Trump. Given the size of some of the smaller territories like Wallis and Futuna, a sum of say $200,000 directed through the Red Cross would be quite substantial.

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.

Chinese plan for a military base in Vanuatu dangerous for region

On Stuff yesterday, there was a report about China reportedly seeking to build or otherwise have a military installation in the Republic of Vanuatu. The purported move comes as concern grows about the militarisation of the Pacific by various nations.

To be fair Britain, France, the United States have all had military testing grounds for nuclear weapons in the Pacific. France and Britain, whilst no longer testing nuclear weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, have a number of non-nuclear military installations around the world. The United States operates a large number of military bases around the world – thought to be 900 in all. China has military bases outside of its sovereign territory, including the naval air station built on a man-made island in the South Pacific.

However this is a first for China, or any other military power to be establishing a military base in a south Pacific nation other than New Zealand or Australia. The location suggests a desire to expand its influence around the world. China, in much the same way America did when a neo-conservative think tank called “Project for a New American Century” formed in 1997, has a road map for global influence. The P.N.A.C. has a road map for achieving total global domination, and largely through military strength and using it as a force of influence.

Politicians in both National and Labour are expressing concern about the militarization of the Pacific. So is New Zealand First, whose leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters has acknowledged that the news is creating strategic unease. It will be interesting to see what happens because New Zealand needs to tread carefully between the interests of America, but also the growing influence and reach of China.

Position’s on international influence in the South Pacific vary and can be split into several groups:

  1. The first is staunchly pro-American/A.N.Z.U.S. and perhaps harks for the bygone era of a three nation A.N.Z.U.S. alliance – the people in this group generally have no problem with the U.S. nuclear umbrella, are reluctant to criticize American foreign policy mistakes and support increased defence spending.
  2. The second group is more likely to be Labour/Green supporters who find much wrong – and there is – with American foreign policy, but don’t always acknowledge the mistakes of others. They are not supporters of A.N.Z.U.S., do not believe in the need for more defence spending.
  3. The pro-China lobby. This no doubt exists somewhere. Mainly in political circles and trade – it might or might not be directed by Beijing or it could be Chinese New Zealanders who believe they are acting in Beijing’s interests. They oppose American influence for different reasons, but would be reluctant to criticize Beijing, despite the latter having scant regard for international law, committing appalling human rights abuses and suppressing its own citizenry.
  4. The third way – I think this group is a bit bigger than a figment of my imagination. It has little time for foreign power geopolitics, and believes most of New Zealand’s foreign policy and aid effort should be focussed on the South Pacific. Their view is that New Zealand Defence Force should be built around an understanding it might need to deploy in the South Pacific on its own with no back up from Australia, either to protect these nations from a foreign power or to stop local conflicts from spilling over.

I think I identify best with the fourth stance. Australia appears to not be thinking much about the influence of China around the world. More and more it has disassociated itself from South Pacific affairs. In the past it would have lead international efforts at disaster relief in the region. Their response to disasters in Tonga, Papua New Guinea and other places; denial of the humanitarian situation on Nauru and Manus Islands suggest a lack of empathy.

Will brave little New Zealand make a stand like we did on Rainbow Warrior, or will, like Australia, we meekly roll over?

Pacific Island neighbours vulnerability showing

With the announcement that another Tropical Cyclone has formed in the South Pacific, I have been wondering about the vulnerability of our Pacific Island neighbours to storms. Since the start of March four Tropical Cyclones have formed in the South Pacific, in the warm tropical waters around the Coral Sea and east towards Fiji.

Tropical Cyclone Debbie went south towards Australia, caused massive flooding and wind damage before veering southeast towards New Zealand. It caused further damage and made the Rangitaiki River break its banks at Edgecumbe. Barely had it gone when Tropical Cyclone Cook formed. Cook took a path straight towards New Zealand, striking the North Island on Good Friday and going out to sea past Banks Peninsula.

At that point one might have thought in mid-April that the cyclone season would have finished and that the seas would be too cold to host the formation of any more. Apparently not. Tropical Cyclone Donna, which formed last week reached Category 5 on Monday, with wind gusts near its centre topping 300km/h. And just as I was going to type this article, it has come to my attention that Tropical Cyclone Ella has formed and is tracking westwards towards Fiji.

This is unprecedented. There has never been a Category 5 Tropical Cyclone in May in the South Pacific. And coming so soon after a flurry of other storms at the tail end of what had been a quite average season until the start of March.

Before Donna took aim at Vanuatu it was struck by another powerful cyclone a few years ago, causing widespread damage and numerous deaths. The repairing and rebuilding of basic infrastructure, such as bridges, power, water and the reconstruction of homes and businesses takes time in a modern, nation. It is slowed down even further in a small island nation where many basics are imported from New Zealand or Australia.

As one of the wealthier nations in the South Pacific, New Zealand has a responsibility to assist with disaster relief. Its foreign aid needs to be more distributed in the South Pacific than in other emergencies around the world where it cannot have such a big impact. The actual portion of our G.D.P. that we dish out as foreign aid is also comparatively low compared to countries in Europe, some of which hand out over 0.5% of their G.D.P. in aid (ours is about 0.27%).

Does a continually evolving climate mean that in the future we might have more big cyclonic storms forming later in the known period of cyclone activity? The climate has been continually evolving since it formed around 2.2 billion years ago. It has undergone warming and cooling phases where ocean levels and temperatures have risen with the warming phase and receded with the cooling phase.

The very sustainability of small atoll nations such as Kiribati is in question. These are island atoll nations where the highest points above sea level in many cases are not much higher than a house roof, where even a king tide can cause substantial damage. This means the day that one of them is struck full on by a large cyclonic storm could be the one that finishes them off.

Is New Zealand prepared to help them on this count? Or are we not the big friendly regional power they think we are?


The necessity of helping our island neighbours in times of crisis

No doubt you will have seen the footage, or heard people talking about Cyclone Pam and the destruction it has caused in Vanuatu. Whilst the full scale of the damage and the death toll is by no means yet clear, it is now known that Pam was a Category 5 system when it slammed into Vanuatu. As the Category 4 system it was at the time of typing this it is still a hefty system. It packed winds well in excess of 200km/h, torrential rain and a major storm surge. Despite being downgraded it still poses a significant threat to New Zealand. Now as the clean up begins, it is worthwhile looking at why New Zealand needs to look after its island neighbours, especially in times like this.

Some of the reasons are obvious and some not so. Some are political, and some are simply looking out for the well being of islands that have not got the resources to repair themselves after major disasters.

I try to keep politics out of disasters. It is not proper although many nations do, to insert national interests into the recovery of neighbouring countries, but every country, big and small would like to know that the day they have a major disaster where international assistance is not only welcome but necessary, it will come. New Zealand found this out first hand on 22 February 2011. Nations as big as the U.S., China and Japan sent rescue teams with specialist equipment for searching in urban environments, whilst small nations such as Samoa and Tonga fundraised. We got the help we did because New Zealand enjoys a good reputation on the world stage as a responsible nation that is fair minded and generous.

But there are perhaps also more controversial reasons for helping these nations. In part New Zealand is as much reliant on these nations being secure as they are reliant on us being able to intervene if there is a dispute or other event that needs outside intervention. And because we are too small to really affect how issues in places like the Middle East turn out, it seems silly to waste a huge amount of time, money and resources trying to shape the region to something we know it will not be. The Pacific island nations are vulnerable to interference from global powers, including China and the United States. Whilst we have some rapport with the United States, it is hard to know how China would react to small Pacific island nations making a stand – would China slam them with sanctions and make threats about diplomatic relations? Would it raise the issue with Pacific powers such as Australia and New Zealand?

But for the time being the priorities are clear:

  • Establish what assistance Vanuatu needs
  • How bad the damage is
  • What New Zealand can offer in support/can we ¬†work with other nations or co-ordinate it via aid agencies

If you want to contribute to the Red Cross aid appeal for this emergency, go here.