Thursday 16 May 2024

Picking Sides.

Time To Choose: Like it or not, the Kiwis are either going into AUKUS’s  “Pillar 2” – or they are going to China.

HAD ZHENG HE’S FLEET sailed east, not west, in the early Fifteenth Century, how different our world would be. There is little reason to suppose that the sea-going junks of the Ming Dynasty, among the largest and most sophisticated sailing vessels ever constructed, would have failed to make landfall on the Pacific coast of North America half-a-century before Columbus. The colonisation of the Americas, from West to East, would have consolidated China’s global hegemony irreversibly. The cramped and fratricidal states of the European peninsula would have remained minor players in a Chinese world.

In the worst geopolitical nightmares of the United States and its Pacific allies, a China grown as powerful as the empire which sent forth Zheng He’s mighty fleet, threatens to transform the Pacific into a Chinese lake.

Technologically and militarily superior to the internally-riven United States, this China of the future regularly stations elements of its fleet off the Californian coast – in much the same spirit as the United States Navy currently navigates the waters of the South China Sea.

In a diplomatic reversal of the USA’s “island-hopping” strategy of the Second World War, an expansionist China will already have brought the tiny nations of the Pacific under its sway. The naval and air bases located on the territory of Beijing’s new “friends” will have extended its strategic reach alarmingly.

Completing this American nightmare would be the transformation of New Zealand into China’s unsinkable aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine base. Handily located off Australia’s eastern seaboard, China’s military resources would have strategically neutralised Australia’s eye-wateringly expensive fleet of Virgina-class nuclear submarines.

Beijing’s heavy investment in New Zealand’s failing infrastructure, coupled with her role as the principal consumer of its exports, made Wellington’s detachment from the West a much easier project than would have been the case if Washington’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” had run to offering the Kiwis a generous free trade deal to replace their economically-critical FTA with China.

*  *  *  *  *

IT IS ONE OF THE KEY DISADVANTAGES of always being on the winning side of history’s great encounters: not being able to grasp the sheer contingency of such victories.

Had America’s carriers not been at sea on Sunday, 7 December 1941, and gone down in Pearl Harbour alongside her battleships; and had Japan’s bombers eliminated the USA’s Hawaiian-based fuel supplies; then an enemy fleet off the Californian coast would not have been the stuff of strategic nightmares; it could, very easily, have been the reality.

Certainly, with America’s fleet either destroyed or out of action, there could have been no Battle of the Coral Sea, no Battle of Midway, to save Australia and New Zealand from Japanese invasion and occupation.

Preventing the Pacific Ocean from becoming a Japanese lake in the 1940s required the expenditure of an awful lot of blood and treasure – and an awful lot of luck. Had things turned out differently, the Americans, desperate to secure their eastern flank, may have been forced to let the Pacific go. And, if J. Robert Oppenheimer had been run over by a Los Alamos bus in January 1942, then they may never have got it back.

What we New Zealanders need to grasp is that America can no more allow the Pacific to be dominated by China in the 2040s than it could allow it to be dominated by Japan in the 1940s. Global hegemony is a zero-sum game. For every step America takes back, its rival/s will take a step forward.

While China was content to remain the world’s factory, all was well. But, the moment Xi Jinping committed his country to building a blue-water navy to rival Zheng He’s great fleet; the moment his Belt & Road project threatened to link the Global South inextricably to Chinese capital and technology; all bets were off.

That brief geopolitical respite, when the Russians were on their knees, and the Chinese were still getting up off theirs, was squandered by Washington in a profoundly compromising series of adventures in the Middle East. Twenty years of “forever war” in Iraq and Afghanistan has left America’s armed forces physically and morally exhausted, and its ruling class dangerously lacking in fortitude. What better symbol of America’s decline could there be than two old men swinging ineffectually at each other for the custody of an angry and divided nation?

The USA’s weakness at the top notwithstanding, the dice of geopolitical hazard cannot remain uncast indefinitely.

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THE NEW CONCEPTUAL STRUCTURE for the rebuilding of the USA’s global strength is its Indo-Pacific Strategy. To understand the theatre-shift, from “Asia” to “Indo”, one has only to study the actual voyages that Admiral Zheng He undertook in the early decades of the Fifteenth Century.

He’s great fleet swept south and west from coastal China, through the Indonesian archipelago, past Sri Lanka, long the coast of India, rounding the Arabian Peninsula, to journey’s end in East Africa – distributing gifts and collecting tribute all along the way. The economic and political logic was as strong for the Chinese then as it is now. Recognising that logic, the Americans have no real choice but to prevent it from unfolding.

There was a time when the USA could have done it all alone, but now it seems that the retention of American hegemony in the Pacific requires the diplomatic mobilisation of the English-speakers who invaded Iraq in 2003 – the US, the UK and Australia. Hence AUKUS – also known as “bringing the old imperialist band back together for one last tour of an ungrateful and increasingly uncooperative world”.

Can New Zealand stay out of AUKUS? Should New Zealand stay out of AUKUS? The answer to the first question, sadly, is: Only if its people are happy to turn their country into a battleground, upon which Beijing and Washington will wage a protracted ideological war for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of what both superpowers recognise as a critically important piece of strategic real-estate. Which, even more sadly, answers the second question.

Helen Clark may have got away with keeping New Zealand out of the invasion of Iraq, but that was because, in Iraq, only American pride was at stake. In the looming struggle for the Pacific, the option of “sitting this one out” will not be on offer. Washington will insist that blood is thicker than milk, and Beijing will remind us that milk is New Zealand’s life-blood.

Like it or not, the Kiwis are either going into AUKUS’s “Pillar 2” – or they are going to China.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 6 May 2024.


new view said...

I can't disagree with much in your essay Chris. As a country our first defensive decision is what side do we want to be on. When push comes to shove it will be the US, regardless of their responses to activity in the Pacific from China, and our opinion of it. Regardless of our being a member of AUKUS or not, we will be under considerable pressure to find 2% of our GDP to show we are serious in our attempts to pay our share of defending NZ and the support of our Allies. Those of us old enough to remember that the Japanese made landfall in Australia around Darwin and were also seen around our coast in WW2, will understand that the bombing of Pearl Harbour most likely indirectly saved us from being under Japanese rule now. Our value to AUKUS or our Allies, will be limited man power, technology, intelligence and recognisance. Not to be sneezed at even in small quantities. The new coalition seems to be heading in that direction. IMO there may come a day when our reliance on China for trade will haunt us so we had better diversify our trade while we have the opportunity or be prepared for an economic hit if any argument with China eventuates. I agree with you Chris in your opinion that if the US backs out of the Pacific China will fill the vacuum. Lets hope the posturing continues but it just stays that way.

The Barron said...

I think this simplifies the geopolitical and internal situation. The first thing to note is that we are already tied in the Canberra Pact to a defense agreement with Australia. That Australia is to obtain a nuclear submarine has not been seen as a violation of the Pact, so long as there is no insistence of visiting NZ ports. Of course the counter is that we are also signatories to the Treaty of Rarotonga, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, as is Australia. This would mean that any AUKUS involvement for NZ would have to be mitigated by this Treaty. Australia is also a signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga and it is unclear how this is reconciled. Both the US and Australia also have a number of bilateral agreements with PGN and other Pacific nations. As we have not seen the options available with Pillar Two AUKUS, we do not as yet know if this can be resolved.

We are a partner in Five Eyes. This is a technology and information sharing pact with the three AUKUS nations, plus Canada. We do not know yet the extent that Pillar Two AUKUS goes would go beyond this. We can also presume that Canada may be offered Pillar two status. Rightly or wrongly, a four one spilt on AUKUS does bring into question our position in Five Eyes should we opt out.

China is our top trading partner. This should be respected. However, South Korea and Japan are also likely to be invited to Pillar Two. It is unlikely China would have sustained trading boycotts or punishments against those trading partners. More so, New Zealand exports food to China which is seen as essential.

It is unclear if South East Asia is being considered at any stage. It should be obvious that India, Bangladesh and all of continental South East Asia cannot sustain any long-term military confrontation with China as all water supplies flow from China. The Philippines, Indonesia and possibly Malaysia are the only countries that would not be under water hostage.

That China is expansionist in foreign policy is evident. Of course, China would see the United States the same way. Taiwan is symbolic of Chinese nationalist claims. However, economically, Taiwan's value to China is greater under the current business and trade. We should remember that Outer Manchuria, sometimes called Russian Manchuria is also an historical Chinese territory with a far more direct historical relationship. Indeed, all of the Russian Far East would be seen by many Chinese as stolen territory. Economically, this is significantly more important to the future of China. Instability in the Russian Federation could see a northern focus.

I do not see this as time to pick a side. I find myself agreeing with Peters in that we need to see what is being proposed and how much we can negotiate our needs, and those of our Pacific partners, into such an agreement. Those with a knee-jerk rejection maybe naïve, those wishing to blindly rush in may be selling us out. The fourth Labour government would have performed cartwheels given the opportunity to be both allied and nuclear free. The view of a NZ 'independent foreign policy' is far more an ideal than a reality. This does not mean it is not an ideal worth pursuing. Recognizing the geopolitical reality is also necessary.

The one lesson from Admiral Zheng is that China was looking for trade not expansion beyond what was seen as traditional tributaries. When he returned, China saw no need beyond the Middle Kingdom.

Tom Hunter said...

Ok. Comments on it is. Faster response and more of them. Sorry Chris.

TeKupe40 said...

Australia, already paranoid of the Indonesian ‘threat’ to its north, will not tolerate being surrounded by ‘little china’ Aotearoa to the its east. I can easily see a friendly military exercise ( presence) backed by AUKUS arriving in this country if we don’t declare some form of agreement to the AUKUS question.