The resumption of Northern Hemisphere travel, the Russian troops on the Ukraine border, and China’s skirmishes with Taiwan – New Zealand’s mainstream media shows a strange lack of interest in the volatility of the international order.
Opinion: It has been a puzzling start to 2022. There seem to be so many inconsistencies occurring, but so little explanation of why they should be so.
Take Omicron, for example. While it is sweeping rapidly through the world, its impact seems dramatic but short-lived. Countries like Britain, South Africa, and Australia, which have been severely affected over the last few weeks, seem now to be over their peak.
Life there seems to be a getting back to a form of normality. Crowds at the Australian Tennis Open in Melbourne seem just as large, boisterous, and unmasked as ever, as do those at English Premier League football games. But none of the media reports here about these events draw any attention to this.
Yet in New Zealand, where Omicron has just arrived, restrictions limiting crowd sizes to no more than 100 have been imposed and many sporting and cultural events planned over the next few months cancelled as a result. There are even suggestions that this situation could continue until at least June this year, a far longer and more severe response period to Omicron than in other comparable countries.
Again, the mainstream media has provided little official explanation why this should be so, or why things should be so different here to require our more severe approach.
Similarly, with Rapid Antigen Tests, where kits of seven have been available free of charge to people in Britain for about six months, or through public vending machines in Singapore for a similar length of time, but which we are restricting the supply of, and still insisting they can only be administered by recognised health professionals.
Or international travel, where people can travel freely across Europe, Africa and the United States provided they are fully vaccinated, but arrivals into New Zealand are still subject to the most restrictive isolation and quarantine system in the world.
We just seem to be accepting these inconsistencies and differences in New Zealand in a meek and unquestioning way. Yet, normally, we would rely on the news media to probe them, to challenge and explain why there are contrary approaches in New Zealand and whether they are justified.
Sadly, however, much of the New Zealand media has, in just as puzzling a way, largely abdicated its traditional, questioning role in favour of an extraordinarily myopic and insular view focussing predominantly but on what is happening here, without any attempt to assess its worth or place it in any form of international context.
If either the Ukraine crisis and the tension between China and Taiwan, or both, erupt into full scale conflict, they will have a far greater impact on the world’s security and stability than the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But it is not only the pandemic that is suffering from that insular approach. The preoccupation with the pandemic means that other significant international events are being pushed into the background as either unimportant or irrelevant to New Zealanders, compared to the continuing story of Covid-19.
Right now, the situation in Ukraine is close to extreme, with the threat of some form of Russian military intervention intensifying, and with it, the consequential reaction from NATO partners, led and encouraged by the United States. This is potentially the most significant clash between the superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost 60 years ago, when the world sat on edge for 13 days, yet it is receiving only scant coverage in the New Zealand media.
New Zealand is not without interests in this situation. Aside from being caught up, like everyone else, in the potential global instability that could arise in the next few weeks, New Zealand has its own relationships with both the United States and Russia to consider.
Within the last decade, for example, we have pursued – albeit unsuccessfully so far – the possibility of free trade agreements with both countries, based on common interests.
We would almost certainly side with the United States if it came to the crunch, but that decision would not be a cost-free one as far as we would be affected. Given the current state of policy in Washington, we would be no nearer the free trade agreement goal at the end of it, than we are today, and our economic relationship with Russia would be set back considerably.
With post-Trump America still locked into a “either for us or against us” mentality, it is going to be extremely difficult for New Zealand to remain disengaged if Washington applies pressure. But we still need American support to keep getting the medicines we need, including the vaccines to fight the pandemic, so are more vulnerable than ever to external political pressure.
A similar potential flashpoint exists in the mounting tension between China and Taiwan. While it is still not clear how much of China’s increased military activity in the Taiwan Straits and Taiwan’s airspace is sabre rattling by Xie Jinping’s regime, rather than a portent of things to come, the potential for miscalculation escalating into open conflict is high.
Last weekend, China sent its largest numbers of aircraft yet into Taiwan’s airspace, forcing Taiwan’s air force to scramble to intercept them and turn them back. An error of judgement by pilots on either side could be disastrous.
New Zealand also has a close interest in this developing situation for many reasons. First, it is occurring in our part of the world. Second, China is our major trading partner, but Taiwan is also a significant trade partner.
While New Zealand is committed because of the one-China policy to support China over Taiwan, it has been a good friend to Taiwan since 1949, and there are many close cultural and economic links between New Zealand and Taiwan. However, the United States is committed by its own law to defend Taiwan, should its sovereignty be threatened, meaning that in the event of conflict, New Zealand will face some unpalatable choices.
What little media coverage there has been in New Zealand of the current situation in both Ukraine and the skies over Taiwan has focused more on the general background to what is happening, rather than on the specific implications for this country and the challenges we might face.
The bottom line is simply this. If either the Ukraine crisis and the tension between China and Taiwan, or both, erupt into full scale conflict, they will have a far greater impact on the world’s security and stability than the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
When the implications of the current global surge in inflation, and potentially interest rates, at a time of high international borrowings to combat the pandemic, are factored in, the overall situation looks even more volatile.
Overall, these unfolding events and the ongoing pandemic mean the threat to international order and global stability are at their greatest in arguably more than half a century. And that makes the continued lack of New Zealand’s mainstream media or other interest in them and their implications for our country even more puzzling to understand.