RIGHT NOW, New Zealand is in a very awkward geopolitical position. Heedless of its vital economic relationship with China, the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region are pushing New Zealand into a growing coalition of containment aimed at weakening the Chinese state and economy.
The most obvious outcome of this diplomatic pressure (and in all likelihood its purpose) will be a sharp deterioration in the Chinese-New Zealand relationship. Most probably, Chinese displeasure will be expressed through restrictions on New Zealand exports. Not that the United States and its allies will make good any consequential losses to New Zealand’s economy. The Coalition of Containment’s sole purpose in precipitating such a break is to erase the irritating question-mark beside New Zealand’s name on its list of “trustworthy” allies.
New Zealand’s national security apparatus, whose loyalty to the people of New Zealand, as opposed to the decision-makers in Washington, London and Canberra, has always been open to doubt, has been pushing the Labour Government hard in the direction of Uncle Sam’s Coalition of Containment. Its efforts have, as usual, been seconded by all the usual suspects in the mainstream news media. (As well as some interesting recruits from the blogosphere!) The resulting upsurge in Sinophobia must be a source of considerable satisfaction to China’s enemies in New Zealand. It is unusual, these days, to hear a kind word spoken publicly about China – without the guilty party being subjected to the most vehement reproof.
That the Left has allowed itself to be drawn into this anti-Chinese discourse is especially disappointing. There was a time when the machinations of US imperialism were subjected to consistent and sophisticated critique by New Zealand communists and socialists, and even one or two intelligent members of the Labour Party. So effective were these critiques that the left-wing arguments advanced against such imperialistic interventions as the Vietnam War were able to win massive public support. The political upshot of such campaigns was a weakening of New Zealand’s relationship with the United States and its allies. The high-point of the Left’s influence on New Zealand foreign and defence policies came in 1986, when New Zealand withdrew/was excluded from the ANZUS Pact.
What passes for the Left in 2023, however, is, for the most part, content to echo the principal talking-points of US imperialism and its Nato accomplices. The obvious fiction that China is an aggressive power seeking global domination is repeated ad nauseum, along with the absurd charge that the Chinese government is overseeing a genocidal campaign against the Uighur population of Xinjiang. (It is a curious exercise in genocide that leaves twice as many Uighurs in Xinjiang today as there were 50 years ago!) It is no accident, however, that this “softening-up” of an historically ignorant Left, addicted to emotionally-charged international campaigns, preceded the creation of the Australian, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) military relationship in 2021.
That there has been no outcry against the decision of the Australian government to purchase eight nuclear-powered submarines from the United States is astonishing. These formidable weapons of war are intended to patrol the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans – and their strategic choke-points – and should have occasioned loud protests from “nuclear-free” New Zealand. At the very least, this present Labour Government might have been expected to gather the small nations of the South Pacific behind it in a concerted diplomatic effort to uphold – and enforce – the 1986 anti-nuclear Treaty of Rarotonga.
If New Zealand continues upon its current diplomatic trajectory its economically vital relationship with China cannot help being put at risk. Certainly, the pressure, both from Canberra and Washington, shows no sign of decreasing. Statement-by-statement, in language that demands much but offers little, Wellington is putting more-and-more distance between itself and Beijing. China is hoping that the hard, cold realities of making its living as a very small nation-state in a very large world will continue to keep New Zealand out of the flash new military leg-irons being fastened around the Indo-Pacific region by the United States.
But, hope is unlikely to be enough. Beijing needs to make New Zealand an offer it can’t refuse if it is to prevent the pinkie-finger of the Anglo-Saxon fist from clenching-up tight alongside its bigger brothers. A change of government in October could be just the opportunity Beijing is looking for.
Faced with mounting infrastructural and climate-related problems, and committed to reducing state spending, what might a National-Act coalition not agree to if presented with Chinese promises of massive investment in transport, housing, and climate adaptation/mitigation projects? Roads of national significance, electrification of the railways, extensive and intensive housing developments, taming rivers and hillsides: China’s done it all before, all over the world. Why not here?
And why stop there. Large-scale investment in renewable energy projects would set New Zealand up for a green re-industrialisation of the economy. Chinese companies will not be the only ones seeking-out nation-states with plentiful, cheap and reliable “clean” energy to offer investors in a post-carbon world.
Too much? Not when one considers that New Zealand 1.0 was built, almost entirely, out of British capital. Why shouldn’t New Zealand 2.0 be the creation of massive Chinese investment? Across the broad sweep of human history, imperialism has always been colour-blind.
Such a shift would, of course, entail a diplomatic revolution greater even that New Zealand declaring itself nuclear-free. Canberra, Washington, London and Ottawa would be livid. Accusations of treachery would be hurled at New Zealand by its former allies and, doubtless, all kinds of clandestine efforts would be set in motion to destabilise – even topple – its wayward government. Outright intervention would, however, be unlikely. It is difficult to persuade the world that China is the greatest threat to peace in the Indo-Pacific, when US Marines are splashing ashore on New Zealand beaches.
In the face of New Zealand’s diplomatic realignment, its South Pacific neighbours might also find it expedient to adopt a new stance vis-a-vis the neo-colonial objectives of the USA and its English-speaking allies. Pacific leaders might feel moved to inquire exactly what the United Kingdom thinks it is doing – again – in this part of the world. Were New Zealand to propose the creation of a South Pacific navy, dedicated to protecting and defending the resources within each member-state’s Exclusive Economic Zone, it might be surprised at the level of interest.
Especially if China offered to supply the patrol vessels.
Such a nightmare scenario could, of course, be easily avoided if the United States was willing to offer what China was ready to negotiate with New Zealand 15 years ago – a Free Trade Agreement. It has always been the easiest and, ultimately, the least costly option for the Americans: agree to take whatever New Zealand can send them – just as Great Britain did for the best part of a century. Just as China is doing right now.
But that would require US Imperialism to do what it has never done before: put the word “give” ahead of the word “take”.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 4 August 2023.