There can be no doubt that the international environment in which New Zealand will have to operate in the decades ahead will be enormously more difficult than the environment we’ve been used to. The facts pointing to China’s coming economic preponderance and the political power that will give it, regionally and globally, seem indisputable.
Nevertheless, a few observers seem to believe that if several other countries act together, under US leadership, China’s power could somehow be contained. I believe that they are simply ignoring clear facts. Perhaps there is an element of wishful thinking. “Past policies have been successful – let’s just continue them.” I’m reminded of the man who’s said to have jumped off the top of the Empire State Building in New York and to have been heard shouting, as he passed the 50th floor on his descent, “Fine, so far!”
Some observers suggest that a country in New Zealand’s situation, with strong relationships with both leading powers, could avoid having to make difficult choices. We should follow the advice in the Chinese saying and retreat to the mountain top and simply watch the two tigers fight down below. But what mountain top, and where?
And as Merriden Varrall has written about Australia’s options, the time during which a choice remains open will be limited. She suggests "It is naive to assume that China will be indefinitely willing to fund our ability to criticise it and attempts to change it.” The same applies to New Zealand, probably in spades.
Meanwhile, the geopolitical landscape facing New Zealand grows daily more daunting.
On the one hand, we will continue to depend on China for our prosperity. On the other, our traditional security partners, Australia and the United States, seem intent on trying to constrain or restrict China, and reports suggest they may be pressuring New Zealand to join them.
For obvious economic reasons and also some arguments of principle encapsulated in what we call our independent foreign policy and our support for multilateralism, there seems to be a sensible reluctance in New Zealand to join a bloc lining up against China. But what then should we do to prepare ourselves for the coming geopolitical upheaval?
I believe our effort needs to be directed to developing the already strong relationship with China to increase the prospects for New Zealand to have influence with China as it wields increasing regional and global power.
Some will say it is wholly naïve to expect that little New Zealand could have any significant influence on a resurgent China. Possibly it is, but probably no more naïve than the expectation that countries like Australia and New Zealand can keep open indefinitely the option of deferring any decision choosing between China and the United States.
New Zealand has a long experience of being a small friend of a great power – first Great Britain and then the United States. We have found that it is sometimes possible to have some influence, relying on reason and persuasion. It’s never easy. New Zealand diplomats often suffer from sore knuckles – from repeatedly knocking on doors that are hard to open.
We have to be careful not to be too swayed by the flattery of major powers which might like New Zealand to be one more member of their “team”. And we have to remember, too, the likely fate of the mouse on the elephant’s back who commented to his large friend “My how this bridge quakes when we great creatures cross!”
Considering the bleak alternative of a confrontation which would be economically devastating and quite possibly lead to war, the possibility, even just a possibility, of having some influence with China in the future is something well worth doing all we can to achieve.
For a start, we need to develop a relationship which recognises openly the importance of both sides being able to discuss concerns respectfully but also frankly, using that word in its English rather than diplomatic sense.
There are several questions which many New Zealanders would like to explore in depth with China. One could be how Xi Jinping’s announced determination to move China to centre stage globally, and in doing so to be more assertive than it has been in the past, will be likely to impact on us and our part of the world. And how, globally, these changes will impact on the current multilateral structure, not least the international rule of law and relevant legal institutions. These issues are central to New Zealand’s foreign policy interests.
Another question is the evidence of increasing authoritarianism domestically in China. A particular issue that has interested me is the plight of human rights lawyers, too many of whom are now in jail alongside their clients. This in no way diminishes the enormous achievement of China in lifting literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a remarkably short space of time. But a country aspiring to global leadership which is known also for justice and fairness in the largest sense will more much readily attract widespread global support.
A separate area of interest involves the allegations in Australia and also in New Zealand too, of dubious efforts to influence the education sector and thereby young New Zealanders.The evidence cited in support of these allegations in New Zealand seems to me to be rather weak. It seems to assume, for example, that the institutions and organisations which are the targets of these efforts are completely compliant or passive. We know that that’s simply not so. But some of the questions asked do deserve answers.
These are all issues on which we will have to make careful judgements for ourselves. If we were to make those judgements without first-hand engagement with the Chinese themselves, about their perceptions and motives, obviously we would risk coming to dubious conclusions
And from the Chinese point of view there will be sensitive questions to ask us – like how much weight to give to extraordinary comments by senior politicians about houses owned by people with “Chinese sounding names”. Is it relevant that this happened in a country like New Zealand which once had a poll tax on its Chinese citizens, and had a background of official racial discrimination against Chinese? Should Beijing’s attitude towards New Zealand be influenced by such questions?
While obviously the Chinese government would make up its own mind on such issues, I suggest it would be very much in New Zealand’s interests to be able to give our own perspectives direct to Beijing.
In a relationship in which such things can be regularly discussed, respectfully of course but definitely fully and comprehensively, both sides would benefit from being able to weigh not only their own observations and perceptions but also points or explanations made by the other.
In short, the geopolitical earthquakes facing us today mean we need to find ways of doing more to increase our ability to influence Beijing.
The kind of more deliberate discourse between the two governments which I suggest could be acknowledged by the two governments as a valuable, indeed a vital element in our relations. This would give it a higher priority in the relationship. Possibly it could be institutionalised, so long as that did not lead to frankness being replaced by formality.
These discussions would be valuable both for the bilateral relationship itself and in building public support for the relationship.
Acknowledging the importance of these sensitive topics would make having the discussions easier. As a result, a relationship which is increasingly vital to our future, could be stronger and better able to survive the coming geopolitical earthquakes.
Bio: Michael Powles is a retired New Zealand diplomat and a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University