New Zealand isn’t ‘sucking up’ to China by learning from countries’ mistakes
Luke Malpass05:00, Apr 24 2021
OPINION: Slowly and then all of a sudden, the Government has come under massive pressure from Five Eyes partners to take a bolder stance on China, ramp up its rhetoric and take sides.
The Five Eyes is often misunderstood. It is an intelligence-sharing treaty between Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand. In the past it was extremely secretive but now it’s a bit more open. More recently, some Five Eyes partners have joined together on various statements.
But fundamentally it is an intelligence-sharing arrangement, not any sort of broader geo-political treaty, or formalised diplomatic grouping.
That it should remain so has been New Zealand’s position for some time, reiterated in comments made by Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta in a speech in Wellington on Monday.
Yet during the week news articles emerged from Australia and the UK suggesting otherwise. Evidently the national security communities in both those countries are unhappy with the language Mahuta used. Certainly parts of Australia’s national security community wants to see the Five Eyes agreement expanded and more formally coordinated.
In the speech, Mahuta talked about being a predictable, respectful and consistent trade partner to China, while also nodding towards New Zealand’s longer-term need to diversify its export markets. She also noted the vast differences on human rights and democracy. Nothing new there.
In keeping with Labour’s general disposition – and that of previous governments – towards China, she refrained from giving the Chinese a rhetorical tickle-up.
The language she used has been criticised because a key foreign policy aim of China is to be treated with ‘respect’. But this shouldn’t be misinterpreted – as it clearly is in some quarters – as somehow being ‘soft on China’. Not yet anyway.
Mahuta also used the clumsy metaphor of ‘the taniwha and the dragon’ to basically explain that New Zealand is different from China. The metaphor could have been helpful, but it didn’t do more than state the obvious: the nations are different but each is worthy of respect. There was also an obligatory attempt to squeeze the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi into foreign policy, without explaining how that helps, why it matters or what it might mean in practice.
New Zealand’s chief diplomatic aim with both China and the US has been to avoid having to make any sort of meaningful choice between our biggest trade partner and security guarantor. In this vein issues are dealt with case by case.
One can’t help but think that Canberra is trying to get New Zealand to line up rhetorically behind Australia because to do otherwise might prove that holding the line on national interests and values – but being less belligerent about it – can work.
Whether Mahuta – who also this week announced a big new review in her other busy portfolio, local government – is the person equipped to continue striking that balance remains an open question at this point.
And for all the talk of New Zealand ‘sucking up” to China or being the “West’s woke weak link” from some British MPs and news outlets, it really reeks more of a long post-colonial confusion within the UK about what its role in the world is. It is still struggling to get used to its diminished importance as the structural power centre of the world moves east.
The Australian concern – and one shared in Washington – seems to be narrower: around the risk that New Zealand might slowly be “picked off” by Beijing one issue at a time.
In a world of increased geopolitical competition, New Zealand will be pressured more to side with those liberal democracies that share our values in the future – and we should. It is understood that the Biden administration is likely to expect more of New Zealand in this space than the Trump administration did. But it is difficult to see how prematurely poking China in the eye by adopting imprudent language helps.
Mahuta’s speech did not traverse much new terrain or particularly change New Zealand’s positioning. The reasons our friends are getting so worried is more interesting, but ultimately it says more about their internal politics and positions than New Zealand’s.