Divided Loyalties: Can the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, be relied upon? That’s what the boys and girls at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon needed to be reassured about. Because, from the perspective of Washington, it’s looking more and more like Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party comrades are getting ready to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans (or milk-powder!) and forgetting all about their duty to protect the interests of their “very, very, very good friends” – in the United States and Australia.
AT ROUGHLY the same time as the police presence at Ihumatao was suddenly and inexplicably boosted (5/8/19) New Zealand’s Deputy-Prime Minister, Winston Peters, was sitting down to dinner with the US Secretary of Defence, James Esper. This high-level diplomatic tête-à-tête took place at the Deputy-Prime Minister’s home in the swanky Auckland suburb of St Mary’s Bay. It’s a safe bet that Mr Peters’ American guest talked about mustering coercive forces far greater than those then arriving at Ihumatao.
That Secretary Esper was there at all is, in itself, remarkable. The US Senate’s stamp of approval has barely had time to dry and the politician charged with responsibility for the greatest aggregation of military might in the planet’s history is on his way to Australia and New Zealand. Not to the United Kingdom and Europe, it is worth noting, but to Australasia, the crucial pivot-point of the United States’ brand new “Indo-Pacific Strategy”.
The change of nomenclature – from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is important. It betokens a critical shift in emphasis. From the straightforward projection of American power to the farthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean: a constant of US foreign and military policy since the heady days of Teddy Roosevelt and his “Great White Fleet”; to the vastly more ambitious goal of “containing” the growing power and influence of the Peoples Republic of China by asserting American hegemony over both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.
To make this work, the United States requires the active support and cooperation of Japan, Australia and India. Together, these nations form what to Chinese eyes must look like a profoundly threatening arc of offensive military capability. Japan stands at the arc’s eastward extremity, India at its western end, while Australia, at the arc’s base, straddles the two great oceans that give the strategy its name. With these three powers holding the perimeter, the other powers of the region: the Philippines, Indo-China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma and Thailand have little option but to go along for the ride.
For the geopoliticians in Washington, New Zealand also has a role to play – albeit a negative one. If Australia is going to fulfil its strategic obligations to the north and west, then it cannot afford to have anyone but a friend protecting its crucial eastern and southern flanks. As far as Washington is concerned – that’s us. Under no circumstances can New Zealand be allowed to fall any further under the influence of China. In the memorable phrase of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who travelled as far as Australia with Secretary Esper, the nations of the region could either “choose to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans, or protect their country.”
This, I strongly suspect, occupied a large part of the American agenda at St Mary’s Bay. Secretary Esper would have been anxious to know exactly where New Zealand’s loyalties lie: in Washington, or in Beijing?
Not that he entertained the slightest doubt about Mr Peters’ loyalties. His recent speeches, delivered on American soil, have made his feelings about Chinese influence in the South Pacific crystal clear. Nor had it escaped the notice of New Zealand’s ‘Five Eyes’ partners that Mr Peters had retired the outdated formulation “Asia-Pacific” in favour of “Indo-Pacific”. It was great to have New Zealand’s Deputy-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on board and with the programme.
But what about New Zealand’s Prime Minister? Could she be relied upon? That’s what the boys and girls at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon needed to be reassured about. Because Secretary Esper may well have suggested to Mr Peters that, from the perspective of Washington, it’s looking more and more like Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party comrades are getting ready to sell their souls for a pile of soybeans (or milk-powder!) and forgetting all about their duty to protect the interests of their “very, very, very good friends” – in the United States and Australia.
As the desert plates were cleared away at St Mary’s Bay, and the whiskey liberally dispensed, did the US Defence Secretary seek to discover how the Leader of NZ First would react if push came to shove – in Hong Kong, for example – and his coalition partners declined to break-off relations with Beijing? Did the American remind Mr Peters’ that he, uniquely, enjoyed the political privilege of choosing his country’s bosses?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 August 2019.