A recent article by Victoria University’s Robert Ayson drew attention to the current weakening of US engagement in the region and China’s growing influence. In his piece Ayson raises a number of salient points. An emphasis on multilateralism and working with other countries to engage with both China and the USA is indeed key to New Zealand’s foreign policy. Yet he also suggests that “One of the unwritten rules of New Zealand’s recent foreign policy is that we can be comfortable with a rising China because the US has been there to reassure the region.” Ayson is not necessarily suggesting that the US is currently this reassuring presence (his piece smacks of some concern about the turbulence created by the current Trump administration), but it is still important to note the limitations of the idea that the US has always been a reassuring presence.
The US did ‘bolt the back door’ for New Zealand in World War Two, and a reliance on this relationship was cemented after the war by the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. The relationship remained strong until the effective suspension of New Zealand from ANZUS in the mid-1980s in punishment for its non-nuclear policy. It is this latter event which automatically highlights the contentious nature of any claim that the US has necessarily ‘reassured the region’. Tensions have arisen in the past and, despite a recent warming of relations between the two countries, conflicts are even more likely to arise with President Trump at the helm. Thus Steve Hoadley has pointed to “substantial policy differences over reliance on nuclear weapons, military assertiveness, economic protectionism, immigration restrictions and walls, and climate change denial, to name but a few”. Although administrations come and go, the consistent claim that New Zealand and the USA ‘share common values’ is already being worn thin by, for example, Washington’s reducing the emphasis on human rights in its foreign policy.
The fact that the US remains the only state to not sign the Paris Convention on Climate Change – Syria just having signed – has been called “very destructive” by Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga. Climate change is the major threat to many Pacific nations and peoples. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has likened this issue to the nuclear free moment – that is, the most pressing issue her generation faces. As Fiji seeks to impress in Bonn with cultural diplomacy and a talanoa approach to negotiations, the US remains a ‘rogue’ state in its outlier status on this vital issue. Similarly the whiff of economic protectionism under Trump will significantly impact smaller countries in the Pacific, as well as larger economies across Asia.
In Northeast Asia, a key area of international concern right now, the root of contemporary tensions on the Korean peninsula has been shaped by continued US engagement, not just by regimes in the north. Memories of the intense bombing of the north and discussions about the potential use of nuclear weapons by the USA during the Korean War arguably helped determine the DPRK’s policy of juche (self-reliance), whilst the breakdown of the 1994 Agreement combined with devastating famine helped spur a move towards a ‘military first’ (songun) policy. Although it is too much of a stretch to claim that the DPRK went nuclear in 2006 only due to its concerns about the US invasion of Iraq and a desire to deter conflict, the suggestion that the US “cannot accept” an “undeterrable” DPRK leaves very few options open. That the Trump administration has increased the autonomy of military commanders may aid in cooler heads avoiding open conflict in this case. Should the US take preemptive (or rather preventive) military action against the DPRK, however, although some allies such as Japan and Australia have agreed that ‘all options are on the table’, New Zealand is unlikely to engage in any military activity without a significant, unprovoked attack by the DPRK and a clear UN resolution. Such scenarios are anything but reassuring.
One of Trump’s first speeches in his Asia tour was given at Yokota Air Base in Japan. He was unequivocal. “We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space.” Such words might reassure those who rue any diminishing of America’s engagement in the region. But for those who do not find succour in an American embrace, such rhetoric raises concern rather than hope. It also grates harshly against growing calls for a more empathetic approach to politics. As I say somewhat crudely to my undergraduate students at Massey University when referring to the international state system that makes up our political maps and which dominates our imagination overly much; “we made this stuff up”. Surely, then, we can in fact make up something better than a model of international politics based on balancing, domination and competition?
B.K. Greener is Associate-Professor of Political Science at Massey University
Photo credit: President Trump departs China, November 10, 2017 Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.