Archive for ‘NZ foreign policy’ Category

Are FTAs OK?

datePosted on 15:40, February 28th, 2009 by Pablo

The Feb 27 announcement that NZ and Australia have signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)  with the ten member Southeast Asian regional grouping known as ASEAN has been hailed as another triumph for NZ’s economic openness, especially coming at a time when protectionist and nationalising policies have re-emerged in response to the global market crisis now ongoing. Although Trade Minister Tim Grosser signed the AANZ-FTA agreement at the 14th ASEAN summit in Thailand, it was MFAT officials working under instruction from the 5th Labour government who sealed the deal (after 4 years of negotiations), and it is these officials who are now beginning talks with India on a bilateral FTA similar to the one signed last year with the PRC. Yet, amid all the self-congratulation by government officials and business leaders, the nagging questions remains: are such FTA’s always good for the average Kiwi?

Pro-trade advocates will say yes on three counts. First, increased markets for NZ exports means more jobs in those sectors as well as their subsidiaries and ancillary industries. Second, increased foreign investment opportunities for NZ firms will eventually increase dividends for Kiwi shareholders. Third, access to a wider range of import markets means more competition and lower prices for Kiwi consumers. But there is more to the picture than this seemingly positive sum outlook.

The AANZ-FTA, like the FTA with the PRC and the P4 FTA signed earlier by NZ with Brunei, Singapore and Chile, is more properly seen as a tariff reduction scheme. In the case of the AANZ-FTA, the goal is to reduce common tariffs by 96% by 2020, thereby paving the way for the development of a a EU-style common market along the Western Pacific Rim that can compete with the EU, the US and emerging giants like the PRC, India and Brazil. NZ estimates are that it will eventually enjoy a 99% reduction in tariffs on its exports to ASEAN while ASEAN members will receive an 85% reduction on their imports to NZ. With US$ 31 billion is ASEAN exports to Australia and NZ  and US$16.8 billion of Australian and New Zealand exports to ASEAN members in 2007 (75% of that volume being between Australia and ASEAN, with NZ exporting US$4.6 billion to ASEAN members in 2008)), the objective is to raise the flow of goods and services ten fold over the next decade. Tariff reduction is seen as the key to achieving this goal, as it will lower transaction costs and remove fiscal impediments to investment within the partnership.

The problems with this arrangement stem from the asymmetries in the respective economies involved, from the lack of “after-entry” provisos, and from the dubious character of some of the regimes involved. With regard to the latter, the AANZ-FTA includes Myanmar and Brunei, two despotic regimes whose trade reliability and fiscal responsibility, much less human rights records, are open to question. It includes Thailand, which has the appearance of a politically failing state where sex tourism weirdness competes with highly exploitative labour-intensive low-cost production as the primary source of GDP, all amid grave ethnic conflict in its southern regions. It includes Laos and Cambodia, two states that barely meet the criteria for inclusion in a globalised trade regime. Its leading members, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have issues of political and/or corporate governance (be it in a lack of corporate transparency and/or a lack of political accountability), and the remaining member, Viet Nam, is a one party authoritarian regime that, if not as retrograde as Myanmar, has yet to exhibit the developmental potential of some of its most proximate neighbours. ASEAN is, in other words, a polyglot of corruption, nepotism, economic underdevelopment and exploitation mixed with crass materialism and indifference towards basic human rights and civil liberties in a highly charged ethnically diverse and stratified demographic, with a profoundly unequal distribution of resources and reliability amongst its members. Is that what NZ wants in terms of preferential trading partners?

Not surprisingly, the AANZ-FTA, which is due to go into effect on July 1 2009, has no common labour standards, including provisions regarding collective bargaining, right to organise, female and child labour, occupational health and safety and quality control. It has no environmental clauses. All of those are left to the industries involved. The Fontera PRC subsidiary’s Melanin scandal gives an indication of what can happen when such is the case.

Then there is the issue of size asymmetries and economies of scale. Is it plausible to think that with Australia coupled to NZ on one side of the AANZ-FTA ledger, NZ is going to be an equal beneficiary of the new tariff regime? If Australia turns out to be the major focus of ASEAN trade, will that not accelerate worker exodus and capital flight from NZ to Aussie under the terms of the CEP? Is it plausible to believe that with the lack of labour and other standards, NZ businesses in a variety of value added or service sectors will not have an incentive to re-locate their workforce in ASEAN countries where wages and benefits are lower? Is it plausible to think that NZ, with an export base in relatively inelastic primary-good industries and their derivatives (say, milk powder or paper pulp) will enjoy an equitable balance of trade with more elastic value-added importers? Is it plausible to think that foreign investors will not use the opportunity provided by relaxed investment regulation to assert direct control over NZ productive assets (which is an issue that also is at play with regards to the FTA with the PRC)? What NEW productive activities will actually  be created in NZ that will help diversify the economy while providing new employment opportunities that require so-called “knowledge-based”  skills? (For an earlier discussion of the problems of asymmetric trade, with specific regard to the PRC FTA, see

These are the questions that need to be asked in the parliamentary debates leading up to the July 1, 2009 ratification date. It is important that the Greens and other groups with concerns about FTAs avoid the appearance of knee-jerk protectionism that they have been saddled with in the past (as was the case with NZ First). Instead, the emphasis must be on the hidden “F” in an FTA–the FAIR aspect of trade, which for a small democracy such as NZ is as important as its free aspect. After all, free trade is not necessarily synonymous with fair trade, and it behooves the political Left to make that point since no one else (to include Labour) will.

Principled or Pragmatic?

datePosted on 14:23, February 7th, 2009 by Pablo

New Zealand is said to have a “principled and pragmatic” foreign policy. In fact, it is considered a model for small state participation in world affairs. Its support for UN peacekeeping, its role in the non-proliferation regime, its pursuit of open trade, its championing of international human rights and its advocacy of environmental protection are considered exemplary forms of small state behaviour on the global scene. But is New Zealand really following principles when it engages the world?

In spite of its human rights rhetoric, New Zealand actively trades with a host of authoritarian regimes without preconditions or qualifiers. Such trade partners include Iran, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Brunei, Singapore and of course the PRC. Its FTAs with the PRC and the authoritarian partners of the P4 trade bloc have no “after entry” provisions regarding labour rights, working conditions, child labor restrictions etc. That is the general rule. Rather than upholding international labor standards and other human rights baselines when promoting trade relationships, it appears that New Zealand abandons them entirely because it is seen as “bad for business.”

A similar situation holds true in the security field. Although New Zealand publicly trumpets its “blue-helmet” deployments in conflicts zones such as South Lebanon, the Sinai and Bosnia,  it quietly operates with a range of foreign security agencies whose records are less than clean. That includes close cooperation with French intelligence, the perpetrators of the Rainbow Warrior bombing and manufacturers of  false intelligence against Ahmed Zaoui; close military-to-military contact with Singapore; development of military-to-military contacts with the PRC, and ongoing intelligence cooperation on and service with US, Australian and UK military units in conflict zones in which NZ has publicly opposed the stance of its larger partners.

As for the NPT, climate change regime and international peacekeeping, perhaps the reasons for participation are less due to principle than to self-interest. Reducing the amount of WMD in the world reduces the potential for catastrophic confrontations and incidental fall-out, contamination and the like. From a self-interested perspective, the less the possibility of adversaries resorting to WMD, the more the possibility of conflict resolution short of total war. Likewise, if one subscribes to the view that climate change is dangerous to humanity, and that humans are major contributors to climate change, that is, climate change is a universal bad caused by people, then it is in New Zealand’s interest to help lead the charge against global warming, CFCs, rising sea levels etc.  In parallel, participation in international peacekeeping can be seen as a form of insurance policy should NZ ever come under attack and its traditional allies are either involved or unwilling to come to its defence. Small states have a vested interest in multinational peacekeeping and defense simply because they are unilaterally vulnerable to the depredations of larger states. In the fluid international environment that is the post-Cold War era, where new powers are emerging, old powers are in decline, and pre-modern ideological conflicts have re-surfaced with a post-modern vengeance (and high tech weaponry), deploying on UN or regional multinational security missions is a self-interested hedge against the uncertainties of the moment. This includes participation in peacekeeping and policing within the southwestern Pacific, as instability and the threat of state failure in places like the Solomons and New Guinea (and further afield, Samoa and Tonga) are believed to invite the unwanted attention of outside powers and criminal organisations as well as spark refugee flows, cross-border tensions and increased levels of violence region-wide. Rather than principle, it could be that pragmatic assessments of longer-term consequences are what drives New Zealand’s approach to these issue-areas.

Labour is believed to be more idealist-principled in its foreign policy approach, whereas National is believed to be more realist-pragmatic. The irony is that other than the (now resolved) disputes over the antinuclear policy, Iraq invasion and dismantling of the tactical air wing, both major parties have, since the late 1990s, tacitly agreed on the overall thrust of New Zealand’s foreign affairs. The bottom line is that pragmatism governs approaches to self-perceived “core” interests, while principle is left to “peripheral” (rhetorical?)interests not essential to national survival and prosperity. Put anther way, the tacit bargain between Labour and National on foreign policy is to never let principle get in the way of pragmatic opportunity or necessity when it comes to international relations.

Bullying Fiji, Part 2: The Inside Game

datePosted on 14:13, January 29th, 2009 by Pablo

Pursuant to the post of a few days ago, I thought it best to follow up with some facts in order to illuminate some of the complexity of the Fijian situation. In doing so I hope to clarify why NZ’s approach may be counter-productive.

The Fijian armed forces total 3,500 troops. Of those, 3,200 are in the Army and 300 in the Navy (there is no air force). Upwards of 97 percent of these troops are indigenous Fijians, with less than 50 military personnel (mostly Indo-Fijians) coming from other ethnic groups. Most of the non-ethnic Fijians are officers, and most are in the Navy (which nominally has nine patrol boats, only of which 2-3 are operational at any given moment). Twenty percent of the Fijian Army are continually deployed on UN  or other international missions (such as Iraq), with the superior UN pay levels being a prize for both officers and enlisted personnel that is transferred in the form of remittance payments to their families back home. If military veterans and private security contractors are included in the total of men under arms, the numbers of ethnic Fijians well versed in combat swells to over 10,000 (Fiji has a thriving market for private security contractors due to its operational experience in foreign conflict zones). The Fijian Navy has limited combat experience, whereas its Army has seen action in a variety of theaters as well as at home.

What this means is that Commodore Bainimarama, as a member of the smaller service (one that has little ground security responsibilities and no ground warfare experience), serves at the behest of the Army commanders. This is important because, as mentioned in the last post, the Fijian armed forces are a classic praetorian military: they internally reflect the political conflicts surrounding them. Since the Army leadership are ethnic Fijians, the Commodore’s proposals to dismantle the disproportionate representation system that favours ethnic Fijians will have a direct impact on the political fortunes of their indigenous kin. Thus Bainimarama must first negotiate the terms of any such constitutional revision with his own High Command, which in turn will have to accept it before popular resistance within the ethnic Fijian community can be lowered. Moreover, the real power to fight in any Army comes from its Non-Comissioned Officers (NCOs, most often of the sergeant rank), which means that there is at least two tiers of command that have to be convinced that such a move is worth backing in the face of family and tribal opposition. Just having the High Command leadership agree will not necessarily be enough to satisfy the NCOs, and recent Fijian history has shown that it is the lower command ranks that ultimately call the shots (literally) when political factors do not swing their way. Perhaps that is why the process of constitutional reform is so slow.

The South Pacific Forum decision to issue an ultimatum calling on Fiji to announce a date for elections is thus problematic. Perhaps NZ and the other sponsors of the resolution believe that in doing so they are giving the Commodore some leverage with which to push his proposals past the Army High Command while at the same time allowing him the cover of publicly voicing nationalist resentment against the intrusion on Fijian sovereignty. But equally plausible is that the ultimatum serves to undermine Bainimarama’s efforts to convince his flag-ranked colleagues and NCOs of the need to accept the “one-person, one vote” system. Should he be seen as weak in the face of this foreign pressure, it is quite possible that a counter-coup will be staged by the Army that will restore disproportionate ethnic Fijian voting privileges in a future constitutional reform. Having a reserve pool of armed veterans amongst the male ethnic Fijian population makes the prospects  for success of such a counter-coup more likely.

Bainimarama’s regime has relatively few uniforms in civilian ministerial positions and in fact has a  majority of civilian administrators and bureaucrats undertaking the daily operations of the Fijian state. Although the Commodore has a petulant streak and his police are selectively heavy handed with regards to dissidents and foreign diplomats who support them, the regime is not universally repressive of the population (perhaps with good reason given the balance of power within the armed forces). But that could change as pressure mounts from both sides–internally as well as externally. Thus increasing foreign pressure on Bainimarama is slowly backing him into a corner–but perhaps not the one that NZ and its allies want him to be in.

This is just one aspect of the equation. One assumes that MFAT has specialists who are aware of this internal game and are advising the government accordingly. It would be advantageous if there were military to military contacts between the NZDF and Fijian military commanders that might serve as a quiet parallel track to the public diplomacy now ongoing. But as things stand the NZ posture seems to be all rhetoric and little if any influence on this (or any other) internal game. If the Commodore does not meet the SPF deadline and economic and diplomatic sanctions are imposed, what is to say that the situation will not get worse rather than better, at least in terms of a peaceful resolution that leads to the restoration of democracy in Fiji?  At that point it will be the Fijian Army that will decide the outcome, and it may not be the outcome NZ favours.

Bullying Fiji

datePosted on 18:02, January 25th, 2009 by Pablo

The ongoing diplomatic fracas between New Zealand and Fiji stemming from the peaceful coup staged by Vice Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his military allies two years ago has taken on the aspect of farce. Although the Commodore is the personification of a petty despot, in equal measure vainglorious and arrogant, in this stoush he may actually be right. The reason is that New Zealand’s approach to his rule is hypocritical, neo-imperialist , short-sighted and and heavy handed in application.

The 2006 coup was precipitated by the multiple failures of Fijian “democracy,” specifically pervasive corruption rooted in a system of ethnic preferences and disproportionate representation. The Fijian military is a classic example of an “arbitrator” or “mediator” military in a mass praetorian society, so it is always the default option when political conflicts come to a head and threaten social stability. Such was the case in 2006, and the justification for the coup was to eliminate corruption and revamp the political system in order to eliminate the sources of patronage and preference that are the root causes of its endemic malaise. As it turns out, although the military intervention has been condemned by New Zealand and Australia, many Fijians and other island states see it in  a more favourable light. Even those who view the military intervention as a political setback recognize that it is not just a military matter but in fact an internal political conundrum that is for Fijians to resolve.

Condemnation from Anglophone outsiders is seen as a colonial vestige that is counter-productive and a violation of Fijian sovereignty. It is seen as hypocritical because New Zealand enjoys trade and diplomatic relations with countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran, countries with less than stellar human rights records (and in the case of the two Arab states, oligarchical rule), and yet says nothing negative about them. Since the Fijian human rights record is demonstrably better than that of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern partners, it appears that New Zealand is being both precious and selective when it accuses the Commodore of  trampling on Fijian civil  liberties, or when it refuses visas to relatives of the military leadership while at the same time welcoming with open arms and blind eyes diplomatic representatives of authoritarian regimes far more repressive than Bainimarama and company (remember, for example, the warm receptions given to Pakistani president General Musharraf  and various Chinese delegations in the past few years).

From a practical standpoint, the public posturing between Fiji and New Zealand amounts to a diplomatic failure for the latter. For whatever reasons, quiet diplomacy has been abandoned in favour of pubic sniping between the two governments. Being the larger opponent, New Zealand comes across as a bully, one that kowtows to larger authoritarians but then vents its spleen on a smaller state just because it can do so without adverse economic consequences. Hints at Australian-New Zealand military contingency planning should things in Fiji take a turn for the worse only serve to fuel Fijian military paranoia and local resentment at what is seen as post-colonial neo-imperialism on the part of the Antipodean Anglophones.

As things stand, the diplomatic row amounts to an impasse. Given the stalemate, perhaps it is time for New Zealand diplomats to look more closely at the reasons for the coup, the nature of Fijian political debate in its aftermath, the utility of other interlocutors in the region and at opportunities for dialogue in pursuit of common ground rather than engaging in a negative-sum bilateral tit for tat that ultimately proves fruitless in terms of  facilitating the restoration of Fijian democracy . It may be unpleasant to have to deal with the Commodore on his terms, but then again, that does seem to have impeded New Zealand’s relationship with other authoritarians on a host of issues far less important than democracy promotion.

The case for increasing NZDF presence in Afghanistan

datePosted on 16:22, January 13th, 2009 by Pablo

If not already, within the next few weeks NZ will be asked by the US and NATO to increase its NZDF contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. NZDF are currently serving in their 13th rotation as a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan (under US regional command). They also have officers deployed as liaison elements at Bagram Air Force Base, bringing the total to approximately 150. In its contribution to the ISAF mission NZ is comparable with other small states such as Estonia (130), Latvia (70), Albania (120) and Slovakia (130) and Macedonia (140), but falls short of most of the other members of the 41 nation ISAF coalition (Australia, for example, has. 1100 soldiers deployed in that theater). The questions are whether NZ should contribute more troops, in what role, and can it afford to do so both politically and economically? Most progressives would say no to all three. I beg to differ.

The answers should be yes, combat and combat support as well as PRT and yes. The reason is that rather than a (neo) imperialist intervention, the mission in Afghanistan is a multinational nation-building effort in the wake of state failure. That state failure was brought about by the medieval theocratic Taliban regime, whose record on human rights and support for external terrorism made it arguably the most oppressive regime of the late 20th century.  Under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine elaborated by the UN in the wake of Rwandan and Serbian ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, the international community has a duty to protect populations from the depredations of their rulers as well as from others. As a supporter of the UN mandate, NZ subscribes to this philosophy. It is thus obligated to be involved in Afghanistan and the NZ progressive community should welcome its involvement. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the striking aspects of the last election was the virtual absence of discussion about National’s approach to defense and security. Now that it is in office, it might be time to ask some questions of National about what it proposes for the defense and security of NZ over the next three years.

The backdrop to any such inquiry must begin with the fact that National by and large accepted Labour’s strategic and policy perspective on the subject. But it is also worth noting, as I mentioned in an earlier post, that National’s foreign policy leadership team have expressed views at odds with their own Party’s stance. This was particularly true for their initial support for the invasion of Iraq and silence on the use of extra-judicial tactics in the prosecution of the war on terrorism. So the questions must begin with the following general inquiry: what will be different about National’s approach to national security and defense when compared with its predecessor?

More specific questions can centre on its approach to domestic security versus external defense policy. For example, National supported passage of the Terrorism Suppression Act, a truly horrendous piece of Labour-promoted legislation that even the Solicitor-General said was a legal dog’s breakfast that was virtually impossible to apply. Given that the TSA dramatically infringes on the right to dissent and allows for the expansion of the State’s powers of covert surveillance and detention of “terrorist” suspects, why did National feel the need to support it? Will it attempt to modify the TSA while in office, or will it let things stand? How, exactly, does National propose to deal with the subject of domestic “terrorist” threats, especially if the present thrust of the TSA is challenged in court or criticised by the Law Commission? Read the rest of this entry »

Ceasefire politics

datePosted on 15:24, January 7th, 2009 by Pablo

The Minister of Foreign Affairs has finally come around and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. One wonders why he did not do so at the outbreak of hostilities three weeks ago. After all, a principled position against armed conflict would have advised for an early rather than late demand for a cessation of both the Hamas rocket attacks and the Israeli air campaign in response. Be that as it may, the belated call for a ceasefire puts NZ in line with the UN position as well as that of the Labour Party (which called for a ceasefire over a week ago), and was driven by the targeting by IDF armour of UN facilities where Hamas fighters sought shelter. Since the NZ is a vocal supporter of UN humanitarian missions, such attacks were bound to cause alarm within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially since the IDF has a track record of targeting UN sites when they are occupied by enemy combatants (remember the IDF bombing of the UN observer post in Southern Lebanon in 2006, which resulted in the deaths of foreign peacekeepers). In addition, local opposition to the incursion into Gaza made the issue politically problematic for National so long as it held to its neutral stance (and silence) on the conflict. Since most of the fire is directed by the IDF against Hamas, a call for a ceasefire on both sides is effectively a call for Israel to halt (at least) its ground operations. That brings National belatedly in line with Labour on the issue.

All of this indicates that there might have been a struggle between the career foreign affairs bureaucracy and their new political masters on how to respond, something only resolved when UN facilities came under fire (which made it diplomatically untenable for National to continue with its “neutral” stance). Sometimes fence-sitting on sharp matters of diplomatic policy can turn into a painful political lesson at home and abroad, so the call for a ceasefire by Minister McCully is as much about the National government saving face in both arenas as it is about its real view of the conflict. Looks like the learning curve is going to be steep…

If the NZ government wanted to do something about Israel’s actions what could we, a tin pot little country on the other side of the world, do?

It’s hard to know what we could do, it’s easy to understand why the government’s response is vague wafflings (although a statement that we think its wrong wouldn’t go amiss), and I’ve struggled to come up with any options, but here are my thoughts

  1. A public statement that Israel’s action is disproportionate, unacceptable and should stop. That seems like the easy one, but I’m sure someone with a foreign affairs background might explain it’s not without cost.
  2. We could go to the UNHCR and offer to take Palestinian refugees in addition to our existing quota. It’s not a public high profile measure, but it would make a real difference to some real lives. 
  3. Working for a UN statement. We might never get one, but it would keep up the international pressure
  4. A travel ban on government and military officials and families? I was scraping the barrel to come up with this one, it seems like something we could actually do and, again, it’s a sign to the international community.

Anything else?

What we can do as individuals is slightly easier; as usual Indymedia is providing a space for people to advertise events. There’s a protest in Wellington today, and one in Auckland on Saturday.

Out of Their Depth

datePosted on 13:18, January 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

John Key’s awe–or was it dumb–struck performance at the 2008 APEC meetings in Lima and recent comments made by his Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence (Murray McCully and Wayne Mapp, respectively) do not portend well for the conduct of New Zealand’s foreign affairs. Key quivered about meeting that lame duck named George W. Bush. He gushed about having the opportunity to meet people “he had read about.” He then turned preacher. In his public presentation Key lectured his larger partners about the financial crisis, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his currency speculator past made him especially unsuitable to lecture anyone on the virtues of finance capital–particularly when several APEC partners have already moved away from the neoliberal prescriptions he so fervently embraces. His call for resumption of the Doha round of WTO talks was little more than showboating given that major actors such as Brazil, India and China have made clear that there are limits to openness when it comes to their strategic industries, and the US and other advanced economies continue to subsidise a number of agricultural sectors for political rather than economic purposes. Given that state intervention, in the form of financial bailouts, has become the primary rescue vehicle used by advanced democracies to prevent the utter collapse of their economies, Mr. Key’s pro-market rhetoric rang both hollow and hypocritical–or profoundly naive.

New Zealand media made much of Key’s APEC trip, but no one else did. No deals were struck or progress made on issues of significance to the country. To the contrary. Mr. Key and his “posse” did not even receive audiences with many of the leaders attending the summit. Judging from foreign reports none of Key and co.’s performances with foreign leaders made New Zealand look particularly impressive. From abroad, Key’s APEC sojourn appeared to be a a matter of personal hubris rather than political necessity, or more charitably, a convenient debutant stopover on Key’s trip to meet the Queen. Read the rest of this entry »

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