Like a unicorn, New Zealand’s independent foreign policy is a fabulous creature – highly treasured, rarely seen but credited with magical healing powers. Some say that if judiciously applied, it could even bring peace between the warring parties in Ukraine.
Yet right now, it is very difficult to see much trace of independence in our foreign policy. As both leaders claimed, this week’s Oval Office meeting between PM Jacinda Ardern and US President Joseph Biden symbolised the warmth and the closeness of the current relationship between our two countries.
More to the point, the official joint statement issued by the White House yokes New Zealand to the Aukus pact by talking of the ‘shared commitment” by “New Zealand and the Aukus partners” to the Indo-Pacific region. The statement paints the two leaders being “committed to deepen co-ordination between the United States and New Zealand,”; and most alarmingly, there’s this paragraph :
We look to increase the interoperability of our forces, including through personnel exchanges, co-deployments, and defense trade. Achieving this vision will require robust and sustained commitment to defense in the Pacific. As New Zealand takes delivery of new capabilities, we will look for opportunities for combined operations and to expand our cooperation in other ways. As the security environment in the Indo-Pacific evolves, so must our defense cooperation.
There is absolutely no indication of how – or whether – New Zealand would retain its independence once it enters the embrace of the US in those “combined operations.” To all intents, the final sentence of that paragraph treats the further militarisation of the Pacific as a done deal.
Certainly, it was hard to spot any areas where the two countries currently disagree on climate change, online extremism, the war in Ukraine and the response to China’s overtures in the Pacific region… There is no sign of daylight between New Zealand’s stance and the current US positions.
Did Ardern express any misgivings to Biden about the US ramping up its oil production ? That would seem to have climate change implications that we appear to have set aside where the US – or NATO – is involved. Did we urge the US to put pressure on Israel to cease its murderous actions in occupied Palestine, and elsewhere?
On trade, we made the usual welcoming gestures for the US to re-join the CCTPP trade pact – but this was rote stuff meant entirely for consumption back here at home. In reality, any expansion of free trade has been politically poisonous within US domestic politics since the days of the Obama administration. Free trade is not only anathema to the US farm lobby. It is very unpopular – free trade kills jobs! – amid the wider public, among Democrats and Republicans alike.
So the bigger question remains. In our current dealings with the world’s major superpower, where is the substance of our supposedly independent foreign policy? In the 1980s, the differences were over nuclear policy. In the early 2000s, it was over our refusal to join the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq.
On both those occasions, a Republican was in the White House. To be fair, one might reasonably expect to see warmer relations and policy overlaps between a Labour government here, and a Democratic administration in Washington. Helen Clark, after all, once famously and accurately suggested that the Iraq invasion would not have occurred if Al Gore had won the US election in 2000.
Biden is also far more engaged in the Pacific region than his predecessor, Donald Trump. Even so, none of the above really explains the eagerness of the Ardern administration to re-align this country so very closely with our traditional allies and military alliances.
Symbolism in action
At home, the Labour-led government has invested billions to boost our military capability. Labour has bought anti-submarine Poseidon surveillance aircraft – whose only feasible target would be Chinese submarines – and new Hercules military cargo planes as well. It has boosted military capabilities that the previous National government – for all of its patriotic flag-waving – had allowed to fall into a state of neglect and near obsolescence, as it pursued the greater cause of budget austerity and tax cuts.
Talking of symbolism, the Ardern government has also chosen to embrace the “Indo-Pacific” term for what used to be called the “Asia Pacific”- the term that used to be in vogue before our allies began treating the containment of China as their main diplomatic and military objective.
To that end, we have also chosen to join the grandly titled but thinly fleshed out “Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership.” Still very much a work in progress, this Biden initiative is aimed at countering the regional economic, diplomatic, and military influence of China. Meanwhile, we continue to treat China as our most important trading partner. Can this really be called walking a tightrope on defence and on trade ? Or is it living proof that we’re trying to serve two masters at once? Either way, there’s not a lot of integrity on display.
On Ukraine, the issues seem to be more clear… We have offered humanitarian and military assistance to the beleaguered government in Kyev. Some critics have viewed our support as a reversion to Cold War stances toward Russia. Yet it is hard to see how – given our support for the international rule of law and the autonomy of small nations – we could have refused Ukraine the military aid it has been asking for so that it can defend itself.
It also seems wishful thinking to assume that we could be successful peace brokers where others have failed. Frankly, it seems a little premature to be offering our restorative justice services while the war crimes at issue are still being committed on a daily basis.
New Zealand is not the only centre-left social democracy to provide material support –of a humanitarian and military nature – to Ukraine. In recent months, pacifism has been in political retreat across Europe. The centre-left governments in Sweden and Finland (and most notably, the Greens in Germany) have all felt impelled (on moral grounds) to denounce Russia’s imperial aggression, and its brutal disregard for the rules of war.
Ardern’s centre-left counterparts in Sweden and Finland have both reacted to the Ukraine war by seeking NATO’s protection. In that respect, it has been widely noted that Russia’s invasion is an own-goal, given that Moscow had partly justified the invasion of Ukraine as a way of stopping NATO from expanding further.
And on to the Pacific…
Elsewhere in the world, there is more room for this country to play a usefully independent role, if only we chose to do so. China is a global superpower. Arguably, it has every right to compete for influence in the Pacific. In response, it would be entirely counter -productive for New Zealand to treat the Pacific as “our” backyard and seek to bribe/bludgeon the region’s small states back into line.
In the Pacific, New Zealand has often played the role of the soft cop, while Australia has been more willing to use its bigger cheque book to exert pressure. In the past, the dominance of Australia and New Zealand in Pacific forums has often been keenly resented. Now, China provides a viable option. In the supermarket of influence, it is the new entrant that maybe the region has needed, to induce the incumbents to show the region a bit more respect.
The wisdom of the Solomons
With that in mind, Solomons Island PM Manasseh Sogovare recently blasted the Morrison government for opposing his country’s security pact with China, even while Canberra itself was secretly signing up to its own security pact in the Indo-Pacific, with those old imperial powers, the US and the UK :
….Manasseh Sogavare said Solomon Islands and other countries in the region “should have been consulted to ensure that this Aukus treaty is transparent since it will affect the Pacific family by allowing nuclear submarines in Pacific waters”.
Sogovare then used the language of independence and mutual respect to justify his country’s decisions with regard to China :
Sogavare added: “When Australia signed up to Aukus we did not become theatrical and hysterical on the implications this would have for us. We respected Australia’s decision. And I’m glad to say that Australia, United States of Australia and Japan respected our sovereignty to enter into this security agreement with China as well, based on trust and mutual respect.”
Unfortunately, the joint Biden/Ardern White House statement chooses to paint Sogovare’s sovereign decision in an entirely negative light. Ardern and Biden spoke darkly of the implications of a hypothetical military base that the Solomons have not greenlit:
In this regard, we note with concern the security agreement between the People’s Republic of China and the Solomon Islands. In particular, the United States and New Zealand share a concern that the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries.
Besides the need to dial back the rhetoric, there’s an opportunity for independence here that is being missed by New Zealand. We’re at risk of looking two-faced. Currently, we’re talking up the Chinese presence in the Pacific as a threat (that we’d be willing helpmates to oppose, alongside the US )when we’re talking to the Americans. Yet at the same time, we’re talking up the sovereignty of the small island states (and their right to engage with who-ever they choose) when we’re taking to them at the Pacific Island Forum.
Genuine independence (and basic honesty) would require us to be willing to tell both superpowers that we’re completely opposed to this region being turned into an amphitheatre for their rivalries. The new competition for influence in the Pacific opens up room for New Zealand to assume a far more independent role as a broker – but only if we take the lead in accepting gracefully that the small nation states of the Pacific can no longer be bullied or cajoled into submission.
The regional competition for influence will have to depend solely in future on our ability to make a better, less conditional case for meeting Pacific needs than China can possibly muster. This may not prove to be all that difficult. In Africa and elsewhere, Beijing’s aid and development efforts have routinely been marked by debt obligations and other fish-hooks.
Our alternative pitch has to consist in unconditionally helping the small nations of the Pacific to act in their own best interests – and even on the occasions when their desires seem entirely at odds with what Washington, Canberra and Wellington would prefer.
New, old & global music
And here’s this week’s music playlist.