You might not have thought so from the campaign, but whichever coalition government is formed once Winston Peters has studied the Special Votes will have a busy external agenda. The Foreign Minister in the new Cabinet will probably get some of the same messages which Gerry Brownlee received in April. ‘New Zealand’s external environment is increasingly turbulent’, read the advice prepared by MFAT, ‘with the risks for small countries particularly acute.’
It’s routine for governments to claim that they is operating in uncertain environments. But this time things are genuinely troubling. And one area for New Zealand to watch is the increasingly tricky intersections between our economic and security interests in the Asia-Pacific. For the last few months, a group of us at Victoria University have been looking at this issue. And as I’ve suggested in a new report, published by the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, smaller powers in the Asia-Pacific are vulnerable as China and the United States use economic pressure to advance their security agendas.
There was a further advantage. These measures were supported by all of the permanent members of the Council, including the United States and China. Mr Trump may have huffed and puffed about putting North Korea out of business through decisive military action, but he has actually been relying heavily on China’s cooperation in placing additional economic pressures on Pyongyang. That’s an economic-security nexus that suits New Zealand.
But there are others that don’t. For example, at the same time as Washington has needed Seoul’s alliance cooperation in dealing with the North Korean challenge, Mr Trump has been threatening to pull the United States out of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement. Add this to the existing decision to withdraw from the TPP process and the United States is in a weaker position to offer economic reassurance (and leadership) to its friends and partners in the region. Japan has sought to fill some of that gap, with New Zealand’s encouragement, but can only do so much.
Meanwhile, angered by Seoul’s decision to accept US missile defence batteries as a price of living with the rising North Korean threat, China has restricted some business and tourism activities with South Korea. Add that to Beijing’s record of hinting at trade repercussions should Australia, New Zealand and other regional countries take unwelcome positions on the South China Sea issue and you have the recipe for extra pressure.
The good news is that the cupboard of policy options is far from bare. The more difficult news is that many of the options have real limitations. We might think we can manage the pressure from great power A by siding more with great power B. Hinting at that possibility is one thing. But as New Zealand and many of its partners depend on good economic and security relations with both China and the United States, actually taking that step is another. Retaliating with some economic-security pressure of our own would be difficult. Small countries like New Zealand don’t have a lot of weight to throw around and we want to avoid further damage to traditions of regional openness.
Instead of unilateral actions, we could work together. Some of the region’s forums, including the East Asia Summit, do traverse both economic and security matters. But the need for consensus across a heterogeneous group of countries, which have heterogeneous relations with the big powers, makes it difficult to get the more challenging economic-security questions onto the agenda.
That’s not ideal for New Zealand. After all, our regional diplomacy puts a strong emphasis on multilateral approaches to regional issues. We are right to celebrate ASEAN’s 50th birthday: that is a real milestone. But at the same time Wellington also needs to deepen some of its bilateral connections in the region. Some of our closest partners are becoming aware of these economic-security pressures too. Working even more closely with countries like Australia and Singapore would seem to make a lot of sense.
But this will require a series of very honest conversations involving the leaders of whatever coalition government we get. There was a time when it was easier to claim things were sorted because New Zealand could have a strengthened economic relationship with China at the same time as better security relations with the United States. But ignoring the economic-security nexus and the policy challenges it poses is no longer viable. The Trump-Xi era of Asia-Pacific international relations, which is still in only its first year, will make sure of that.
Image credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighard from Flickr.com