Friday 5 August 2022

Seating Arrangements

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.


Andrew Nichols said...

If only we had Norm Kirk as PM in these times. His speeches would have cut through the imperial hypocrisies like a knife. He had firm convictions. Ardern just greases whatever audience she has sadly.

Anonymous said...

The position that the government and the Opposition have arrived at on China is by far and away the right one for our country. I remain engaged on foreign affairs and defence issues, and regularly discuss the issues with Gerry Brownlee. I also write for Line of Defence.
China knows perfectly well that NZ is essentially part of the west in foreign policy and defences issues. However that doesn’t not mean we have to be craven supplicants. We can have our own view as to how we interpret our role. For the last 30 years this has involved a bi partisan approach, with a balanced approach being the way we have reconciled the tensions.
This has become more difficult in recent times, but not overwhelming so. Australia, with the change of government, has realised they need to adjust. Not quite so obviously taking the role of Deputy Sherrif.
Given that China is one of the two great powers bordering the Pacific, keeping a balance is not just an imperative for NZ, it will be the view of most Asia Pacific nations.

Anonymous said...

Don’t you think we should have diversified our dependency on one one main trading partner? Isn’t this just a repeat of the 60s and our total dependency on England to take all our agricultural exports and then our naive shock when they joined EEC as they told us they would? How does your view here that the only serious economic position for any party is to assure NZs economic prosperity by not upsetting China sit with what’s happening over Taiwan and where does that leave NZ as an honest international broker? Is it our wallets first and any moral or ethical issues second? Sounds very NeoLiberal if you think so.

D'Esterre said...

"L’air du Cow."

More properly, l'air de la vache

I suppose that there's not the least likelihood of Ardern saying: "I know nothing at all, either about what's happening inside China, or what its foreign policy intentions might be, so I'll make no comment about either."

Even though this would be no more nor less than the truth.

Anonymous said...

Did you not notice, our free trade agreement with the EU expressly left dairy exports off the table, as Chris alluded to here. If diversification is indeed the only option, what exactly are we to diversify to? Plant all that pastureland in pine forests and reap the benefits of carbon credit guilt payments until the cows come home?

aj said...

Joh Key is even more completely open about our current and future arrangements with China. I usually agree with very little he says, but apart from his final comments in this Q&A interview about Luxon I agreed with every word.

Sir John Key: Pelosi’s China visit “reckless and dangerous”

John Hurley said...

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.
Labours Third World Solution – Gareth Morgan 
"Ireland’s economic miracle was driven by Germany. Under Labour, ours is being gifted by Communist China. The Germans sent money, the Chinese are sending people. 
“By far the greatest challenge to a government that rejects policies that promote competition and economically efficient resource allocation, is how to keep growth going in the face of taxation, regulatory and ownership impediments that a socialist programme sponsors. In this regard Helen Clark’s Labour government has been singularly successful in promoting an alternative stimulant for growth. 
That impetus has come from getting immigration up to record levels, notwithstanding the squeals from Winston Peters’ constituency. Just as Ireland found a sugar daddy to give its economy a boost in the 1980’s, Miss Clark has discovered the dividend from unfettered people inflows.
Just inside the sliding doors of the Dahua supermarket in Northcote, Spoonley enthuses over the leafy greens. An estimated 80 per cent of the businesses in the precinct are Asian.
“Have you been in one of these lately? Look at the variety,” he says, waving an arm across the expanse of the produce aisle. “You are getting all the choys. And see, it’s in Mandarin script as well as English.”
We continue through the aisles, up into the meat section where a customer is chatting happily with one of the staff. “Have you heard English spoken so far?” says Spoonley. “Most of the language spoken here is Mandarin. Asia comes to Auckland. Asia comes to New Zealand.”

Identity is something that evolved to keep groups secure, secure in the sense of identifiably us i.e including minorities but not becoming "majority/minority" as part of a grand "experiment".

John Hurley said...

Sir John Key: Pelosi’s China visit “reckless and dangerous”

John Campbell
What do you want to be remembered for?”
John Key
“Going back to that main point I think it was Muldoon who famously said “I want to leave the country in no worse condition than I found it”.
John Campbell
“Isn’t that a low ambition?”
John Key
“Yes I want to leave the country in better condition than I found it and if theres something (I genuinely beleive) It would be lifting our confidence to a certain degree about how we see our selves in the world and what we think we are capable of achieving. Now I think individually there is masses of ambition that sits out there there but can we actually take that and convert that to take the opportunity .
And I always thought what was happening in the opposition of politics (of course they would oppose National, that’s their job actually apart from everything else) but it was a bit negative about our place in the world. So we played a bit about whether people coming here was a good or bad thing whether people should invest here was a good or bad thing, or whether we have a trade agreement with parts of Asia was a good or bad thing, but actually in my mind, the reason that I want to say yes to those things is because they are the opportunities that reflect our opportunities to both get wealthier (which is all about what you can do with that money) and then ultimately the opportunities for Kiwis. I’d like New Zealanders to feel (after my time as Prime Minister) they have become more confident outward looking nation more multicultural.
And what did Sir John mean.......?

Forms property development company with Choy Bros.