Incoming Calls: While Prime Minister Ardern is contemplating the ever-widening ramifications of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s reckless endangerment of so many of this country’s longstanding diplomatic, military and trade relationships, she might also consider asking herself how New Zealand’s refusal to distance itself from such naked assertions of ‘hard power’ is likely to impact on China – the nation which just happens to take 26 percent of our exports?
IF JACINDA can tear herself away from Reid Research’s latest poll, she might like to cast an eye over the UK Defence Secretary’s, Gavin Williamson’s, recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute. Dismissed by The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins as “the pompous rantings of a 1950s Tory on the make”, Williamson’s words recall the long dead era of British naval supremacy, as well, sadly, as the rapacious imperialistic appetites it excited.
His country’s imminent departure from the European Union, Williamson declared, should be seen as a heaven-sent opportunity to re-define the United Kingdom’s role as a global power: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”
Simon Jenkin’s insults notwithstanding, Williamson’s speech was more than a mere “rant”. He actually proposes to send the UK’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth II, along with her squadron of F-35 fighter jets, into the Pacific. This dramatic projection of British “hard power” will, according to the Defence Secretary, serve notice on all those who “flout international law” that the “Anglosphere” is back in its old hunting-grounds – and means business.
Williamson’s reference to the flouters of international law is, of course, aimed directly at China. By the “Anglosphere” he presumably means the “White” British Empire of yesteryear: Canada, Australia and New Zealand – plus, of course, the USA. Quite what the Chinese, Indians, and all the other peoples of Asia (which Williamson, tellingly, refers to as the “Indo-Pacific region”) are supposed to make of this altogether outlandish resurgence of Anglo-Saxon imperialism is anybody guess, but it is unlikely to be positive.
The question Jacinda needs to ask herself, her Labour colleagues, and her Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, especially, is: How should New Zealand respond to Williamson?
Is our Prime Minister really willing to allow this country to be associated with such an extraordinary display of racial and cultural chauvinism – and sabre-rattling? Should she not instead move immediately to distance herself from this latest example of Brexit-induced English lunacy?
And while she’s contemplating the ever-widening ramifications of the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s reckless endangerment of so many of this country’s longstanding diplomatic, military and trade relationships, she might also consider asking herself how New Zealand’s refusal to distance itself from such naked assertions of ‘hard power’ is likely to impact on China – the nation which just happens to take 26 percent of our exports?
It is to be hoped that our Prime Minister is sufficiently historically literate to recognise the scarcely believable levels of hypocrisy on display in Williamson’s grand rhetorical flourishes upbraiding those who flout international law. The UK is, after all, the nation whose warships forced the Chinese to open their ports to the East India Company’s opium.
When a British Secretary of Defence talks about enhancing the Royal Navy’s “lethality”, the chords of memory struck in the hearts of a billion Chinese evoke anger and sorrow in equal measure.
In relation to New Zealand, however, the reaction of the Chinese government is almost certain to be more sorrowful than angry. Since December 1972, New Zealand has enjoyed a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people.
Ours is not a powerful nation in conventional terms. Geographically and demographically, New Zealand is insignificant. Morally, however, we have loomed large in Chinese eyes. Proud and independent; determined to chart our own course, New Zealanders have, until quite recently, left behind them in Beijing a very favourable impression. The reward for that Kiwi honesty and fortitude was the 2008 China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement – without which our experience of the Global Financial Crisis would have been considerably less tolerable.
Right now, however, Beijing is wondering where that Kiwi honesty and fortitude has gone. Thanks to our Foreign Minister’s embrace of the Anglo-Saxon “Pacific Reset”, the delicate vase that was the China-New Zealand relationship lies in pieces on the ground.
Turning around airliners and “rescheduling” important diplomatic encounters is only the beginning. The Chinese have 5,000 years’ experience in sending “messages”.
If Jacinda was to send a message of her own, however. If she was to call out the UK Defence Secretary’s speech for what it is: imperialistic, racist and absurd; then Beijing might conclude, with relief, that New Zealand has returned to its senses.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 February 2019.