“TIME IS SPEEDING UP”, says Wigram Capital Advisors’ principal Rodney Jones. His reference is to the speed at which the geopolitical situation is being transformed by the actions of Russia and China. Specifically, Jones is alluding to the presence of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in the capitals of the South Pacific and the prospect of at least ten of the region’s micro-states being drawn into a “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” by Beijing. As Jones forcefully reminds us, the “generally benign strategic environment” in which Prime Minister Helen Clark blithely located New Zealand more than twenty years ago, is long gone.
The Chinese Government, sensing a measure of disarray in US foreign policy, has not lost any time taking advantage of the global confusion and alarm caused by the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine. Looking past the ardent demonstrations of support for the Ukrainian Government’s resolute defence of its territory, Beijing has calculated that this enthusiasm will fade as the economic consequences of the war begin to be felt by the peoples of Europe and North America – not to mention Australians and New Zealanders.
It is all very well for President Joe Biden to pledge his country’s military intervention should China invade Taiwan, the real trick is making Beijing believe him. Why would they, when Washington has been so careful to ensure that its own forces, and those of other Nato members, do not come into contact with Russian military units. After all, China’s nuclear arsenal is no less apocalyptic in its potential than Russia’s. Biden’s monosyllabic tough-talk could only have been a bluff, and the White House’s immediate walking-back of his bellicose pledge into the relative diplomatic safety of “strategic ambiguity” proved it.
Not only that, but Biden’s resort to bluff can only serve to deepen Beijing’s conviction that the United States no longer feels confident that its military strength is equal to the challenge of the emerging Eurasian duumvirate. In this regard, the meeting in Tokyo of “The Quad” (USA, Japan, Australia, India) may not have delivered the geostrategic warning to Beijing that the Americans intended.
Anthony Albanese is not Scott Morrison, and the stance adopted by the new Labor Government of Australia seems likely to be considerably less belligerent than its predecessor. If the global economy continues to weaken, it is also quite likely that the folly of equipping Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines will be postponed indefinitely.
The announcement of the trilateral AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) Pact in September 2021 is unlikely to have impressed China’s military leadership, most particularly since the US’s most powerful Quad allies, Japan and India, were not persuaded to join. To the Communist Party of China, the Anglophone AUKUS will have all the appearance of an absurd imperial anachronism. Once again, the impression conveyed is of a flailing and failing United States.
Of much more interest to the Chinese will be the reaction of the Indian Government to the Russo-Ukrainian War. India’s ties to Russia are strong, making it a less than vehement supporter of the West’s ruinous sanctions regime. Nor can New Delhi be insensible to the potential strategic challenges arising out of the Sino-Russian “entente” of 4 February 2022.
The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be observing with keen interest President Vladimir Putin’s ability to withstand the economic warfare unleashed upon his country by the West. Should the Russian Federation’s military forces begin to gain the upper-hand in Ukraine, and if China’s financial support renders the sanctions regime bearable, then Modi and India’s political class will have some serious thinking to do.
Does it make sense for a non-European nation like India to be perceived as some sort of Western lap-dog? Especially when it could, instead, become a crucial part of the Eurasian superpower fast emerging as the nemesis of the imperialist West?
If India goes, can the oil-rich nations of the Middle East be far behind?
All too aware of the energy vulnerability of the United States – not to mention the acute sensitivity of the American electorate to ‘rising gasoline prices at the pump’ – some US legislators are already attempting to throw their weight around on the question of how much oil the member states of OPEC should be sucking out of the ground. Threats of passing legislation allowing the United States Government to seize the American-based assets of “uncooperative” OPEC states are unlikely to impress the Saudis or their Arab allies. The defection of key oil producers to “Eurasia”, and the end of the US dollar as a fiat currency, would also spell the end of American/Western hegemony.
Even if Eurasia fails to materialise as the new global hegemon, the continued global dominance of the United States still cannot be taken for granted. Beijing will be paying as much attention as Moscow to the outcome of the 2022 mid-term congressional elections. Most political scientists agree that the chances of the Democratic Party retaining control of the House of Representatives and the Senate are close to zero. But, if the Republicans come surging back, then the potential for serious internal disorder breaking out in the United States is very high. Not only can a house divided against itself not hope to stand, but it also cannot possibly bend the rest of the world to its will.
With all of the above potentialities for Western disaster in play, it is not difficult to understand why, all over the world, the Chinese are actively probing for points of weakness. The South Pacific has clearly been identified by the geopoliticians in Beijing as an area ripe for the insertion of Chinese money and influence.
There will be those in the New Zealand foreign affairs community who respond to this probing with all the flatulent bombast of the pith-helmeted imperialists of yesteryear. These are the armchair warriors who are currently urging the Labour Government to tell the Chinese to “Clear orf out of ‘our’ backyard!” As if, like the Russians, we regard nearby, supposedly independent, nation states as falling within our sphere of influence.
Fortunately, however, there are also foreign affairs and trade specialists who understand that ‘national security’ is not simply about military force and the ability to project it aggressively. No nation can call itself secure if its economy is falling apart, and it people falling into poverty. As this country’s largest trading partner and key export market, China is not a country New Zealand should be in any hurry to infuriate and/or alienate. And, there are plenty of Australian politicians and businesspeople who feel the same way.
New Zealand’s “generally benign strategic environment” has not been undermined by the Pacific’s rising superpower. History teaches us that it’s the waning superpowers, edged-off the geopolitical stage by more dynamic rivals, that the world’s small and vulnerable states have most reason to fear.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 30 May 2022.