Stand Well Clear: The Filipino-American novelist, Tess Uriza Holthe summed-up the dangers confronting small nations caught up in the rivalries of their much larger friends and neighbours in her oft-quoted aphorism: “When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.” The primary focus of New Zealand diplomacy should be to make the South Pacific a Pachyderm-Free Zone.
NEW ZEALAND’s relationship with her South Pacific neighbours can no longer be separated diplomatically from her relationship with China. Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, confirmed this last week in a speech delivered to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. The automatic loyalty of this country’s “Pacific family”, Peters warned, can no longer be taken for granted.
“It has become increasingly obvious that the perception of New Zealand by Pacific leaders is changing. This reflects a new generation of postcolonial Pacific leaders who are increasingly confident, independent, and assertive regionally and internationally. They are more comfortable in courting a range of external partners.”
In plain English, Peters is saying that the Pacific is no longer a British or American lake. South Pacific states now have the luxury of playing off the old imperialist powers of the West against the People’s Republic of China.
The diplomatic challenge confronting both New Zealand and Australia is how to reconcile their historical role as imperialism’s local enforcers, with their present – and growing – economic dependency on the Chinese market.
It’s a challenge which, until last week, New Zealand was managing with a great deal more diplomatic finesse than Australia.
The latter’s response to the rise and rise of the People’s Republic has been to reflexively reassert all the worst aspects of his imperialistic heritage. Unmoved, apparently, by the fact that China has, for some time, been Australia’s largest trading partner, the politically-dominant conservative elements of Australian society have become ever-more strident cheer-leaders for reasserting Western dominance in the Pacific region.
Ever since President Barack Obama’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” towards the Asian-Pacific strategic theatre, Australia has made no secret of its determination to become the leading mid-level power of South-East Asia – i.e. to outstrip the military capability of the Indonesians. Only recently, the Liberal-National Government of Malcolm Turnbull announced its goal of lifting Australia into the ranks of the world’s leading arms exporters.
More significantly, the Australians have not shied-away from the idea of their country becoming the geo-strategic lynchpin of a vast arc of influence extending all the way from the Sea of Japan to the western shores of the Indian Ocean. Linking the USA, Japan, Australia and India, this “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” is aimed directly at China’s much-vaunted “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) geopolitical initiative.
This is where New Zealand steps back into the diplomatic quadrille.
The previous, National Party-led, government responded swiftly and enthusiastically to OBOR. And why not? Years of inaction and underspending – by both major parties – have left the nation’s infrastructure in such a state of disrepair that fixing it up is now well beyond the ideologically acceptable bounds of state intervention. The most willing provider of this urgently-needed foreign investment is China. Though she is well below the belt, and a long way off the road, New Zealand is, nevertheless, determined to get her share of the trillions the Chinese are planning to spend on global infrastructure.
Or, so it seemed, until Peters departed from the prepared text of his Lowy speech to register his dismay at the speed with which the previous New Zealand government had signed up to China’s OBOR initiative. “They couldn’t have known exactly what it all meant”, interpolated the Foreign Minister.
What was he thinking? That Beijing wouldn’t register his unscripted remark? That references to New Zealand’s “strategic anxiety” (vis-à-vis the evolving diplomatic situation in the South Pacific) would not be interpreted by the Chinese foreign ministry as a thinly-disguised appeal for increased American engagement in New Zealand’s “back-yard”?
Or, did Beijing interpret Peters’ remark as a minimal, but necessary, concession to the strength of anti-Chinese feeling among senior Australian politicians, military officers, diplomats and spies? Is Wellington suspected of being too close to Beijing? Is this the reason for Canberra’s rising exasperation at the failure of successive New Zealand governments to re-equip their army, navy and air-force in a manner designed to both complement and hasten Australia’s quest for regional hegemony?
If so, then the Australians are playing a sophisticated (and sinister) geopolitical game. The more New Zealand’s armed forces are reconfigured as an integral part of Australian force projection, the more New Zealand’s capacity for diplomatic manoeuvre is constrained. A New Zealand Defence Force geared-up to support the USA’s, Japan’s, Australia’s and India’s determination to thwart the objectives of OBOR, has every reason to resist any political and/or diplomatic attempt to maximise and preserve New Zealand’s geo-strategic options.
If the Minister of Foreign Affairs is genuine in his desire to “re-set” New Zealand’s diplomatic posture in the South Pacific, then his every effort should be directed towards building relationships that owe as little to Canberra and Washington as they do to Beijing.
As the Filipino-American novelist, Tess Uriza Holthe put it: “When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.” Let’s make the South Pacific a Pachyderm-Free Zone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 March 2018.