|Proximate Cause: Tellingly, it was Helen Clark who was seated close by when, earlier this week, Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech carefully crafted to keep New Zealand’s dairy exports heading China’s way. Photo by Politik
PURISTS WOULD ARGUE that New Zealand’s foreign policy should not be determined by who its Prime Minister sits next to. Their preference would be for consistency of message and predictability of action at all times.
Easier said than done, of course. Contradicting the President of the United States when you’re seated next to him in the White House would be a diplomatic incident in its own right. Small wonder, then, that Jacinda Ardern decided that when in Washington, talk like a Washingtonian.
Ms Ardern is not so naïve, however, as to imagine that both the tone and the vocabulary of her Washington pronouncements would go unnoticed by those who speak the language of Beijing.
Aware that the New Zealand Prime Minister’s next stop would be the Nato summit meeting in June, China’s diplomats opted to remain silent. They were keen to hear what she would say when she was seated next to the Nato Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg.
In the official White House communique of 31 May 2022, President Joe Biden and Ms Ardern jointly singled out the Peoples Republic of China as “a state that does not share our values or security interests”, noting that any Chinese attempt to establish “a persistent military presence in the Pacific” would, by fundamentally altering the region’s strategic balance, give rise to national security “concerns” in both New Zealand and the USA.
One month on, the heady incense of Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russian aggression which suffused Nato’s Madrid summit (28-30 June 2022) seemed only to brighten the militaristic glint in the New Zealand Prime Minister’s eye. Impressed, no doubt, by the lengthening geopolitical reach of the Nato partners – now extending all the way to the Indo-Pacific – Ms Ardern wound her diplomatic rhetoric up a notch. China, she said, “has in recent times also become [like Russia] more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.”
This was too much for Beijing. China’s Wellington embassy described Ms Ardern’s comments as “wrong and thus regrettable” and “not helpful in building trust”.
To the untrained ear, this may sound like a mild rebuke. But to those, like the Australians, who have, in the relatively recent past, forfeited China’s trust, the economic penalties following such rebukes have been anything but mild.
It’s all very well to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the shieldmaidens of Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Denmark and breathe in the heady perfume-du-jour – L’air du Cordite. But, eventually, all New Zealand Prime Ministers are obliged to get off at the World’s last bus-stop and breathe in L’air du Cow.
Not for nothing is our foreign service dubbed MFAT – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. By asserting the indissoluble linkage of New Zealand’s diplomatic and economic interests, our diplomats might just as easily have called themselves the Ministry of Milk Fat. It has always been thus. In two world wars we traded blood for butter, and, even today, it is the brute calculation of who pays for what that ultimately determines our allegiances.
Ms Ardern may have thrilled to the martial music of our “traditional allies” and longed to strike the heroic poses of her North European counterparts but, for all their war songs, the Americans and the EU nations weren’t offering to bankrupt their own dairy farmers by taking all the milk solids we can send them.
Thankfully, at least some of the employees of MFAT still have their eyes on the only prize that matters – the well-being of New Zealanders. Thankfully, some still understand that the only “national security” worth a damn is the security that comes from being able to pay your country’s bills. And the only country making it possible for us to do that; the only country willing to take all the milk solids we can send; is the Peoples Republic of China.
To her credit, Prime Minister Ardern always comes back to that single, crucial, fact of New Zealand economic life. It helps that the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, “gets it” too. Even more helpful is the fact that the woman who negotiated New Zealand’s free trade agreement with China is as alive and alert as ever.
Tellingly, it was Helen Clark who was seated close by when, earlier this week, Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech carefully crafted to keep those milk solids heading China’s way.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 August 2022.