The new foreign policy direction will not meet its biggest test in Ukraine but in the Solomon Islands. At some not-too-distant point New Zealand will have to make an uncomfortable choice between the US and China
Comment: Since the invasion of Ukraine, our most avowedly left-wing Prime Minister in years has been nudging New Zealand’s foreign policy more clearly in the direction of the Western (namely, American) world view than at any point since our “nuclear-free moment” of the 1980s.
Previous key articles of our foreign policy faith have been knocked over with ease hardly a blink since Russian troops marched into Ukraine just over eight weeks ago. Legislation allowing New Zealand to impose autonomous sanctions on Russia has been rushed through Parliament, despite being rejected by the Government less than a year ago when proposed by National as inconsistent with New Zealand’s approach.
This legislation overturns the decades-long practice of previous National- and Labour-led governments of only applying sanctions under a United Nations mandate. Abandoning that approach will make it harder for us to uphold an independent foreign policy when next pressured by friends and allies to join them in imposing sanctions on an errant state. This may explain suggestions the Government is now having second thoughts about the scope of the new legislation.
In addition, direct military assistance is being offered to another country for the first time since the Vietnam war. Since then, our contribution has usually focused on peacekeeping, post-event reconstruction and logistical support, although our special forces were involved in clandestine operations in Afghanistan. There is even talk now of our providing armaments and weaponry to assist Ukraine, although the scale of any contribution would be extremely small. All these moves mean we are not just a concerned bystander to what is going on in Ukraine. Although remote, and a minor player, we are inexorably now becoming part of the Ukraine conflict.
None of the Government’s moves to shift our foreign policy to align more with the US and Britain would have been thinkable less than a decade ago, but, curiously, none of it is causing any great public concern or debate today.
However, this new foreign policy direction will not meet its biggest test in Ukraine but in the Solomon Islands, much closer to our back doorstep. The recently agreed pact between the Solomon Islands and China should come as no surprise. After all, China has been becoming more involved in Indo-Pacific affairs over recent years, initially to counter the influence of Taiwan in the region but more recently under President Xi Jinping to assert its own position more strongly.
Until now, China’s involvement has been through its Belt and Road initiative, the global infrastructure development plan in which China has invested in more than 70 countries and international organisations over the past 10 years. The Solomon Islands agreement goes beyond that to include the possibility of a Chinese naval base in its capital, Honiara, and the deployment of Chinese police to help maintain law and order. This extension is causing understandable concern among other countries in the region, and the US.
Since New Zealand diplomatically recognised the Peoples’ Republic of China at the expense of the Republic of China (Taiwan) 50 years ago this year, every subsequent government has been slavish in its adherence to the One China policy that China has always insisted is the only basis on which diplomatic relations can proceed. Indeed, New Zealand has been more rigid than most other countries in adhering to and supporting the policy, especially as far as Taiwan is concerned.
That was undoubtedly a major factor in China agreeing to negotiate its first free trade agreement with New Zealand in 2008, although it is arguable that this was more because of New Zealand’s small size than the close relationship between the two countries. New Zealand was an easy starting point for China, to iron out any potential bugs in free trade agreements, before embarking on similar agreements with much larger economies. Since 2008, China has negotiated 16 more free trade agreements, with a further eight under negotiation.
The China/New Zealand free trade agreement has been extremely important from New Zealand’s point of view, at least. China is now our major trading partner. However, the economic reliance that has established has made the maintenance of a strong political and diplomatic relationship more vital to us than ever. In effect New Zealand has become China’s client state.
The Prime Minister says this close economic relationship does not preclude our speaking out against China on matters of concern to us. However, the record suggests otherwise. As with all its predecessors over the past 50 years, this government has been stubbornly quiet when it comes to reported Chinese human rights abuses. For example, the plight of the Uyghur people under the current Chinese government raised barely a whisper of concern in New Zealand. And, last week the Prime Minister was loth to offer any criticism of the New Zealand Supreme Court’s decision to allow the extradition to China of Kyung Yup Kim, a New Zealand resident of 30 years’ standing and a Korean citizen, on a murder charge, despite the objections on human rights grounds and the international political and legal criticism this decision has drawn.
This is the point at which New Zealand’s increasingly lock-step relationship with Beijing, and new foreign policy warmth towards the American umbrella begin to collide. The US has already made it clear it is not going to tolerate any significant expansion of Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and United States) defence pact from which New Zealand was not only excluded but also only informed of at the last moment, clearly has countering China’s potential expansionism in mind. New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy was assumed to be the reason we were left out, but it also likely that our perceived softness (and therefore unreliability) regarding China was a significant factor as well.
With the US and Australia, along with other Indo-Pacific states, showing strong concern about China’s agreement with the Solomon Islands and the potential regional instability it may lead to, New Zealand is not going to be able to just smile away the issue and remain good friends with everybody, as it seems to be hoping. The US will be expecting New Zealand to take a more decisive approach if our overtures to the Western alliance on Ukraine are to be seen as meaningful. Likewise, Xi will be looking to his most loyal and hitherto unquestioning Pacific ally for support. And New Zealand will be aware of the potential economic backlash and its massive implications for our economy of failing to provide that support. It is inevitable that at some not-too-distant point New Zealand will have to make an uncomfortable choice.
In short, 50 years of sycophancy to China have left us more exposed than protected, especially given China’s emergence as a genuine superpower in that time. As a small trading nation always struggling to make its way in the world, New Zealand needs trade relationships such as the one with China to bolster our economic security. But we also need similar arrangements with other major economies such as the US and the EU, for example, to balance the portfolio, if you like, and offer more latitude for us to follow the independent foreign policy we claim to desire, without the risk of facing destructive economic retaliation for speaking out on political and diplomatic issues of concern.
But free trade agreements with the EU and the US look as far away as ever. Last week, the Prime Minister was conceding it was unlikely the US would ever rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Trump administration withdrew from so abruptly. If that is so, as seems likely, the chances of a bilateral free trade agreement getting off the ground are extremely low. And, despite the five years of negotiations so far, the EU appears hardly enthusiastic about any deal with New Zealand for all the historical reasons around agriculture. For the foreseeable future, therefore, New Zealand’s economic dependence on and consequent diplomatic subservience to China will remain.
During the 15-year Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi) through to 2017, New Zealand Police and Defence personnel, along with Australia and regional partners, made a substantial contribution to the peace and stability of the Solomon Islands. Before that, many New Zealand troops had fought in the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal particularly, during World War II. Our link to the country is long-standing.
While the Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation with every right to determine its own future, the former Ramsi partners have justifiable reasons to feel somewhat miffed at the recent turn of events. The bigger question raised is the very future of regional assistance missions, or whether their role will in effect now be outsourced to the superpowers.
For New Zealand, the Solomon Islands loom as the place where we will finally have to choose between the US and China. If the past 50 years of our relationship with China is any guide, the recent gentle nudging of our foreign policy more in the direction of the US seems set to meet an abrupt end on the streets of Honiara.