New Zealand won’t join US coalition against China anytime soon – The Diplomat
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s rock star status has been boosted by her recent visit to the United States. During the trip, Ardern received an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, was a guest on the popular Stephen Colbert late-night show, and met President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.
As well as increasing Ardern’s visibility, the visit also raised expectations that New Zealand could align with the United States against China. And why not? Both countries share a commitment to liberal democracy and a strategic interest in a stable Indo-Pacific region. By contrast, China is a Marxist-Leninist state that is increasingly determined to challenge the regional and global order that Wellington and Washington have pledged to uphold.
Two recent developments involving China have undermined New Zealand’s national interests and made it more open to alignment with the United States than at any time since its controversial departure from the ANZUS alliance in the 1980s The first concerns China’s treatment of Australia, New Zealand’s only treaty ally. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta called Australia “our closest foreign and security policy partner”, while Ardern recently called Australia New Zealand’s “most important partner”. Zeeland.
This helps us understand why the needle on Wellington’s Richter political scale went haywire after Beijing responded to then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s formal April 2020 call for a World Health Organization independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic with a range of economic measures. punishments. For good measure, Beijing’s ambassador to Canberra listed 14 grievances which he asked Canberra to satisfactorily address before relations could be restored. This development has made New Zealanders realize the less benign side of China’s rise in power in a way that no amount of speeches or visits from US officials or leaders ever could.
The second concerns China’s activism in New Zealand’s traditional sphere of influence, the Pacific Islands region. The signing of a five-year cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands in April is a direct challenge to New Zealand’s security. The final agreement is not publicly available at this time, but a leaked draft states that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, conduct vessel visits to carry out logistical resupply, and have a stopover and a transition”. in the Solomon Islands. Ardern noted that this was a “seriously concerning” development.
Ardern also questioned why the Solomon Islands turned to China, an extra-regional power, to address its security concerns. After all, the Biketawa Declaration of October 2000, endorsed by the Solomon Islands and 17 other members of the Pacific Islands Forum (including New Zealand), already provides a framework for seeking collective responses to security crises. The Declaration notes “the vulnerability of member countries to threats to their security, broadly defined” and stresses “the importance of cooperation among members to deal with such threats when they arise”. The security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Declaration and calls for a response. On May 31, a very strong joint statement was released after Ardern’s meeting with Biden, expressing unequivocal shared concern about the China-Solomon Islands deal.
That said, a combination of countervailing imperatives, including New Zealand’s deeply rooted tradition of independent foreign policy and strong economic ties with China, constitute a considerable constraint to major policy change. New Zealand will not take the decision to join a coalition against China lightly.
Foreign policy independence is the practical expression of contemporary nationalism in New Zealand. It has two interconnected sources: geography and anti-nuclear sentiment. New Zealand’s geography epitomizes a low-threat environment, making relative independence both an attractive and achievable goal. The country is located deep in the southern hemisphere. Its neighbors are either a close ally with nearly identical values and interests (Australia) or relatively small island states.
And then there’s New Zealand’s anti-nuclear sentiment, which manifested itself in the public’s aversion to the docking of nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed US Navy ships in the 1970s. This was backed up by then Prime Minister David Lange’s widely endorsed statement during a March 1985 debate at Oxford University that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”. The back story is important in understanding the conflict of interest that broke the New Zealand-American leg of the ANZUS alliance.
In February 1985, a crisis erupted within the alliance when the Reagan administration stuck to long-standing US policy of not disclosing whether its warships were armed with nuclear weapons during their transit through New Zealand territorial waters. Faced with this uncertainty, Wellington refused to allow a United States Navy vessel access to New Zealand ports. When the Lange administration refused to change course, the United States suspended its ANZUS security obligations to New Zealand in August 1986.
Wellington then passed the New Zealand Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act in 1987, banning both nuclear-powered ships and ships with nuclear weapons from its ports. Congress responded immediately with the Broomfield Act, downgrading New Zealand’s status as an official ally. Admittedly, both sides have since sought to improve their relationship, as evidenced by the signing of the Wellington Declaration in 2010 and the Washington Declaration in 2012. In February 2013, then-Prime Minister John Key even said in an interview that “Relations between New Zealand and the United States have never been better”. Nevertheless, Secretary of State George Shultz’s statement in 1986 at the time of the ANZUS hiatus that “we remain friends, but we are no longer allies” remains true.
Hard economic interests, exemplified in contemporary China-New Zealand relations, reinforce the imperative not to align with Washington against Beijing. Since signing a free trade agreement in 2008, China has become New Zealand’s largest trading partner, with total trade exceeding US$33 billion in 2020. As of the first quarter of 2022, government figures New Zealanders reveal that China is the destination of more than 25% of New Zealand’s exports and the source of just under 20% of imports. Economic interdependence has a political effect. Like many Indo-Pacific states, there is a deep reluctance in New Zealand to get on the wrong side of China.
There is a clear record here. Wherever possible, official statements of disagreement by the New Zealand government on China-related issues are expressed in the least provocative manner possible. When China’s treatment of its Uighur population in Xinjiang was heavily criticized in a non-binding resolution in parliament in 2021, the Ardern administration rejected any official designation of genocide.
Truth be told, New Zealand’s engagement with China has been called into question as Beijing’s internal political sensitivities and issues are increasingly projected abroad. Events in Auckland in June and July 2019 illustrate this point.
Ahead of protests planned for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests in China, Chinese Vice Consul General Xiao Yewen met with Auckland University of Technology Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack. According to emails obtained by Newsroom, a New Zealand media website, a request was made by the Chinese official to cancel the event, presumably because its symbolism represented a repudiation of the current regime in Beijing. Lady Luck intervened: the meeting was canceled for a technicality, thanks to the Tiananmen anniversary which took place on a public holiday in New Zealand.
But the problems kept coming for Wellington. In late July 2019, tensions between two groups of University of Auckland students over the political situation in Hong Kong culminated in a short verbal and physical altercation between two students. Remarkably, after the event, on August 1, 2019, the Chinese consulate in Auckland apparently expressed support for the group opposed to the Hong Kong protests. Subsequently, on August 5, New Zealand officials met with Chinese embassy staff to reiterate the importance of freedom of expression in New Zealand and its universities.
The examples from Auckland illustrate the difficulty China has in adhering to its own principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and the pressure under which New Zealand, like many of China’s trading partners, faces to reconcile economic engagement with liberal democratic principles. The root of the problem is the asymmetrical power possessed by China and the accompanying vulnerability caused by the disproportionate reliance of small states on exports to China.
Certainly, the winds of Sino-American great power rivalry could become so fierce that New Zealand will end up choosing sides. But we are far from it. As things stand, New Zealand’s tradition of independent foreign policy and its strong economic ties to China create a strong imperative against joining a US coalition to balance China anytime soon.