OPINION: The lesson of the coronavirus era is this: international security does not stop, even during a global pandemic.
While New Zealand plays cat and mouse with the coronavirus, the United States and United Kingdom have just announced that they will assist Australia in deploying a conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
At a virtual meeting attended by the heads of the three states, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison framed this as “the first major initiative of Aukus”, a new trilateral security partnership. The move is intended to bolster the US-Australia alliance and underline the UK’s post-Brexit interest in playing a serious role in Asian security.
To what end is all this activity directed? To counter China’s assertive foreign policy.
After more than a year of Chinese economic and diplomatic sanctions, the Morrison government has placed Australia’s strategic eggs in the American basket.
It is a bold move. But it was coming.
Truth be told, since assuming the helm in late 2012, the Xi Jinping regime has embarked on a high-risk, high-rewards foreign policy.
New Zealand is as reliant on trade with China as it was on the UK in the 1970s.
In that time period, China has consolidated control over the South China Sea, divided the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and relentlessly challenged Japan’s control over islands in the East China Sea.
Over the past year, Taiwan’s airspace has been violated at will by the Chinese air force.
Each of these actions, as well as numerous domestic political issues including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and a tightening of control over the business community, has been robustly defended by Beijing.
A balancing coalition has only lately begun pushing back. The inner circle of that coalition comprises Japan, the US, the UK, India, and now, Australia.
It is arguably ten years late. But better late than never.
- Japan sceptical China meets 'high standards' to join Trans-Pacific Partnership
- China applies to join Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership
- Grant Robertson denies New Zealand 'soft touch to China', believes CPTPP request not connected to AUKUS deal
- 'No concern' around NZ Navy ships in South China Sea - Henare
What are the implications of these developments for New Zealand?
First, whether we like it or not, great power politics cannot be wished away. It’s high time we asked ourselves some hard questions. A few spring to mind.
Now that our top trading partner, China, is in an open rivalry with Australia, our treaty ally since 1951, do we need to make any serious changes in our foreign policy?
What is our view if China responds to Australia’s move by establishing a greater diplomatic and military presence in the South Pacific? What about a China-Fiji alliance?
How are we going to respond if China seeks to counter US-Australian co-operation by asking New Zealand’s space agency if it can can sign a space cooperation agreement akin to the US-NZ Artemis Accords?
The sooner we have a discussion about these sorts of questions, the better.
Second, as part of that discussion, questions need to be asked about New Zealand’s level of trade dependency on China.
Do we diversify our trade? If so, what is our timeline for doing so, and to what extent do we diversity?
Alternatively, do we take the route of maximising our profits and increase our trade dependency with the Middle Kingdom?
If we take this route, are we prepared for a lesser (maybe even no) role in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network?
These are difficult questions to answer. But dodging them by repeating the mantra of an “independent foreign policy” will not make them go away.
Let’s be clear. It is comforting to assume that New Zealand’s foreign policy is fit for purpose, that enlightened interdependence trumps narrow nationalism, and that we obviously pose no threat to China or the US.
That may be our self-perception. But it overlooks the obvious point that great powers don’t care much about perceptions or feelings, as long as their interests are respected.
And the last thing we want is to be squeezed by a great power, as Australia has been by China.
Lest we forget, in November 2020, the Chinese ambassador to Australia passed on to the media a list of 14 grievances China had with the Morrison government’s policy.
This prompted Morrison to declare that Australia’s values, democracy, and sovereignty are “are not up for sale”.
Australia has learnt a hard lesson about geopolitics 21st-century-style. To avoid a replay of that movie, New Zealand needs to wise up to a new era of great power rivalry.
Nicholas Khoo is associate professor in the politics programme at the University of Otago. His research focuses on great power politics, Chinese foreign policy, and Asian security.