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Bryce Edwards: The problem of ‘blindly following’ the US against China

PM Jacinda Ardern and US President Joe Biden discussed issues from trade in the Indo-Pacific to New Zealand’s experience with gun reforms....

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PM Jacinda Ardern and US President Joe Biden discussed issues from trade in the Indo-Pacific to New Zealand’s experience with gun reforms. Video / The White House


New Zealand may have finally jumped off its foreign policy tightrope act between China and the US. Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern effectively chose sides, leaping into the arms of the US, at the expense of the country’s crucial relationship with China.

That’s the growing consensus among observers of New Zealand’s foreign policy, following Ardern’s visit to the White House and her Government’s strong stance against China’s increased diplomatic presence in the Pacific region.

Blindly following traditional allies

Observers are now questioning whether Ardern’s obsequence to American power will badly damage New Zealand’s national interests, and there is criticism that the Government is “blindly following” the US against the interests of both New Zealand and the Pacific.

There is no doubt that China believes Ardern is now siding with Washington over Beijing. China’s Ambassador to Wellington, Wang Xiaolong, has written a letter to Ardern accusing the Government of “blindly following others”, and suggesting she is making a big mistake in her attempts to reposition the country as a stronger diplomatic and military ally of the United States.

Former prime minister Helen Clark has also hit out using similar language, in a subtle yet sharp critique of how the country’s foreign policy is shifting under Ardern. Responding to Ardern’s closer ties with Washington, Clark says: “The key issue in maintaining the substance and perception of NZ foreign policy will be to ensure that NZ is making its own decisions based on its own values and interests and not blindly following others”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at The White House on June 1. Photo / Supplied
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at The White House on June 1. Photo / Supplied

Will Ardern integrate New Zealand into a more global Nato?

Clark’s comments were reported this week by political journalist Richard Harman. He also reports that Ardern is now planning to attend the next Nato summit in Madrid, which would be a strong provocation to China.

At a time when Nato appears to be expanding and is increasing a US-led global alliance against China and Russia, New Zealand’s increased involvement with this military alliance would be a further sign that Ardern has abandoned any vestiges of neutrality in favour of an alliance against China.

In his report Harman suggests that rather than just attending the summit to discuss the issue of Ukraine, Ardern could end up endorsing the expansion of Nato, or some version of it, into the Pacific region, in order to stave off China. As Harman writes, “If Ardern does do that, then New Zealand’s ‘independent’ foreign policy is likely to be tested, as it has not been since 1985.”

Criticisms of NZ siding with the US over China

This week the New Zealand Herald published an editorial that also bemoaned that “Ardern signed up to a joint statement that nailed New Zealand’s colours squarely to the US mast on security and strategic concerns.” The newspaper warned this shift was not necessarily in the interests of New Zealand or stability in the Pacific: “there is still value in the country treading a more careful, independent path on China than Australia does. New Zealand has been able to maintain a good relationship with Beijing and it is best to keep up a constructive dialogue”.

Leftwing political commentator Josie Pagani argued this week that Ardern was obviously heavied by the US into taking a more belligerent stance on China than the Government would normally take. She perceptively points out that, although the joint Ardern-Biden statement was focused on condemning China, when the Beehive put out their own version of the statement in a press release, the anti-China statements were absent.

In terms of how to deal with China, Pagani observes that, although countries like New Zealand and the US are always keen to lecture smaller countries about what they should be doing, in this case we should be the ones listening to the Pacific Islands: “instead of offering advice, we should be humble enough to learn from a region that has been figuring out how to navigate the superpower squeeze for longer than we have.”

Pagani, who has worked for a long time on Pacific and development aid, says we should be aware that the Pacific are actually being offered good deals from China, and so we shouldn’t be so dismissive. If anything, New Zealand should be partnering with Pacific countries in how they orientate to offers of help, instead of just “chest-thumping on China”.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi appears on stage at the Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers' meeting with Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on May 30 in Suva, Fiji. Photo / AP
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi appears on stage at the Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers’ meeting with Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on May 30 in Suva, Fiji. Photo / AP

In favour of partnerships in the Pacific

Waikato University’s Alexander Gillespie also says that the current reset in the Pacific comes in the context of New Zealand’s neglect of those countries, especially in terms of aid spending. He points out that this country spends much less than the agreed target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income. In fact, New Zealand falls well short, with only 0.26 per cent, well down on the high point reached of 0.52 per cent. New Zealand needs to “put its money where its mouth is” instead of complaining about China giving assistance.

Gillespie argues in favour of partnerships and co-operation with China in the Pacific. He says: “Chinese influence in the Pacific is not necessarily something that must be ‘countered’. For the good of the region, countries should seek ways to work together, especially given that aid to the Pacific is often fragmented, volatile, unpredictable and opaque.”

If anything, Gillespie says New Zealand should be trying to ensure the “region is not militarised”. But this would mean taking on not just China, but also the US, Australia, and indeed reversing our own escalation of military spending on arms for the region.

It’s not just voices of the political left like Clark, Pagani and Gillespie that are critical of the Labour Government choosing to throw its lot in with the US against China. Former National prime minister John Key is the other high-profile figure warning against the path that Ardern is taking New Zealand down.

Key told Newshub this week that Beijing will be present in the Pacific forever and it’s a “waste of time” trying to get them out. He said New Zealand should be “working with them instead.” Similarly, National’s foreign spokesman Gerry Brownlee said that trade with China should be the “starting point” in navigating the issues in the Pacific.

Other experts with a strong knowledge of China are making pleas for the Government and the more hawkish commentators to calm down. For instance, New Zealander Warrick Cleine, who is the CEO of KPMG in Vietnam and Cambodia, says that it’s strange and disturbing to hear New Zealand commentators “beating the drums of war and the public being primed for conflict”.

Cleine says that his experience in Asia has led him to believe that there’s no need for the “level of alarmism in New Zealand”. He argues that the experience of other Asian countries is that a good relationship can be had with China, and independent foreign policy can be maintained.

Today Māori leader and commentator John Tamihere has also spoken out in favour of New Zealand taking a more independent stance in the US vs China tensions and he stands up for the right of Pacific nations to do deals with China without receiving criticisms. He says, “to beat up on the Chinese for doing business with sovereign nations is just racism”, and argues that the evidence doesn’t stake up for the New Zealand narrative about “the nasty Chinese and the nice Yanks and Aussies”.

Tamihere says that “it is about time we shaped our own foreign policy rather than being dragged along by others”, and by way of warning refers to Australia becoming “the 51st State of the USA”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 1, 2019. Photo / Supplied
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 1, 2019. Photo / Supplied

Sinophobia and drumbeats of war

There is definitely a rising drumbeat of war amongst many political commentators, as well as academic international relations specialists, who tend to gravitate towards support for the United States. Canterbury University’s Anne-Marie Brady believes China is trying to physically isolate New Zealand by dominating the Pacific Islands, and her view seems to be catching on with many others.

Bernard Hickey wrote this week on his Kaka website that New Zealand should be preparing for war against China: “My personal view is we should get as much US military presence as we possibly can on our shores, and also arm ourselves to the teeth with drones, missiles, maritime surveillance and strike forces to keep the EEZ safe from China’s fishing fleets. China is a truly dangerous, ugly and malign force in our world.”

The idea of New Zealand becoming something of a deputy sheriff to the United States in the Pacific is increasingly asserted in the media.

The need for engagement

New Zealand would be well advised to step up its engagement with countries in the Pacific and Asia. Currently, the Ardern administration appears overly concerned with visiting and communicating with the Anglo and European countries, and that’s a mistake.

Geoffrey Miller of the Democracy Project has called for more engagement with China, as “There is a very Cold War-style feeling at the moment. The only way to avoid that is by talking.” In addition, to reduce such “geo-polarisation” Miller says “I would have liked to see Mahuta invite [Foreign Minister] Wang Yi to New Zealand as part of his Pacific tour.”

Similarly, the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett has suggested that Ardern now needs to travel to China to repair the damage done. And Today FM’s Rachel Smalley suggests that the PM must go to Beijing before any other cities outside New Zealand.

Smalley has asked why New Zealand is biting the hand that feeds, especially by signing up to the joint statement with the US that attacked China so strongly: “this statement was ill-thought-through by Ardern and her advisers. I think we’ve been played by the Americans. They have a very challenging relationship with China and they have used us, and our relationship with China, to point score. The Americans have nothing to lose from this, but we do, and potentially we have.”

Smalley, like others, suggests we should be very willing to criticise China for any problems that we might have with them, but we don’t do it as part of a pile-on instigated by their increasingly hostile rival superpower the US. She rightly suggests that we are now jeopardising a perfectly good $33bn trade relationship and our independent foreign policy just for some photo opportunities in the Oval Office. Hardly a worthwhile trade-off.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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