Difficult Decisions Ahead: New Zealand cannot endorse Obama’s gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea without antagonising its largest trading partner. Hence, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee’s description of China as a “true strategic partner”, and his announcement that Kiwi troops will train alongside the Peoples Liberation Army. This both-sides-against-the-middle approach to building strategic security may end up dwarfing the consequences of the anti-nuclear policy.
MANY NEW ZEALANDERS would be surprised to learn that their government considers the Peoples Republic of China a “true strategic partner”. Most of us have come to terms with the fact that China is our largest trading partner – but a “true strategic partner”? Strategic partnerships are the stuff of geopolitics: they’re about the nation’s fundamental interests; its oldest loyalties. When something’s wrong in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call?
Up until the Japanese sinking of the British warships Repulse and Prince of Wales in 1941, New Zealand’s “true strategic partner” had been Britain. New Zealand had been a British colony since 1840, and a Dominion since 1907. At the outbreak of war in 1939, New Zealand’s foreign policy was memorably summed-up by Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, when he stated simply: “Where Britain stands, we stand. Where she goes, we go.”
And go we did. Not even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and her armies lightning advance into the Pacific and South-East Asia was sufficient to persuade the New Zealand Government to bring her only effective military forces home from North Africa. The Australians were not so selfless. With Darwin in flames, and Emperor Hirohito’s forces advancing across New Guinea, Prime Minister Curtin recalled his troops to defend the Australian continent. He, at least, understood that, in geopolitical terms, Australasia’s “true strategic partner” was no longer Britain, but the United States of America.
By 1951 that partnership had taken the form of the Australian, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) Agreement. Diplomatically and militarily, the ANZUS alliance spoke eloquently of the new strategic realities inside the Pacific rim. While sentiment, and London’s fading dreams of empire, may have persuaded many Kiwis to persist in calling Britain “home”, it was to Washington that her senior soldiers and diplomats turned – not only for protection, but also for guidance.
And that was the way the story went for the best part of thirty years, until, as we all know, it fell apart amidst New Zealanders’ determination to make, and keep, their country nuclear-free. Needless to say it wasn’t an outcome with which the country’s senior defence force personnel, diplomats and public servants were at all comfortable. As far as they were concerned, New Zealand’s need for a “true strategic partner” had grown more, not less, acute. The Chinese giant was waking up. South America was outgrowing its dictators. Absent her true strategic partners, New Zealand was extremely vulnerable.
Their problem was that, in the eyes of those partners, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy constituted a massive rock in the road to a full restoration of the strategic relationship. And that wouldn’t happen, said Washington and Canberra, until the obstacle was removed. In vain did the NZ defence Force and MFAT protest that removing the obstacle was politically impossible. With both the Labour and National parties committed to a nuclear-free New Zealand, that wretched rock wasn’t going anywhere.
New Zealand diplomats had no other option except to come up with their own solution to the problem of how to restore the Washington, Canberra, Wellington relationship. In the end, MFAT and the NZDF decided that if they couldn’t remove the rock, or go through the rock, then they would simply have to go around the rock.
As a way out of the impasse it was nothing short of brilliant. By quietly cutting a narrow track on both sides of the rock, and then widening it, laying down shingle, and, finally, sealing it over, the rock was gradually reduced to one of those landmarks that everybody passes by without really noticing. Washington and Canberra hadn’t changed their position on the undesirability of the rock, but now, with the encouragement of successive New Zealand governments, they were simply invited to ignore it. The signing of the Wellington Declaration in November 2010, while not formally restoring New Zealand to the status of an American “ally”, did describe her as the United States’ “partner” in the Pacific. It was a remarkable diplomatic breakthrough.
Rapprochement with the USA did not, however, leave New Zealand suddenly bereft of rocks in the road. Determined to check the Peoples Republic’s rising global influence, President Barack Obama “pivoted” away from the Middle East and back towards the Pacific, where he’s currently flexing American muscle in the South China Sea. America’s Pacific “partners” will be expected to join in.
New Zealand cannot, however, endorse Obama’s gunboat diplomacy without antagonising its largest trading partner. Hence, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee’s description of China as a “true strategic partner”, and his announcement that Kiwi troops will train alongside the Peoples Liberation Army. This both-sides-against-the-middle approach to building strategic security threatens to dwarf the consequences of the anti-nuclear policy.
Somehow, New Zealand has to avoid catching itself between this latest rock in the road and a very hard place indeed.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 3 November 2015.