Two decades ago New Zealand uncoupled the security and trade strands in its foreign policy. The decision stemmed from the removal of New Zealand’s preferential trade status with the UK in the early 1970s and the fallout to the embrace of a non-nuclear status in 1985, which led to the dissolution of the Australia-New Zealand-US military alliance (ANZUS). With the end of the Cold War, New Zealand foreign policy elites decided that one of the cornerstones of foreign policy in the tight bipolar world that dominated international affairs from 1945 to 1990, issue linkage between security allies who trade preferentially with each other, no longer applied to the conduct of its international relations and that placing the trade and security â€œeggs â€œof foreign policy in different baskets better ensured independence and autonomy in international affairs.
Over the next twenty years New Zealand shifted its trade orientation to non-traditional partners in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East while slowly re-establishing its security ties with its traditional Anglophone allies. The latter trend was accentuated after 9/11 but did not slow the pursuit of preferential trade agreements with new markets, China in particular. In fact, New Zealand signed the first bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) between a Western democracy and the PRC in 2008, and within a few short years China has become New Zealand’s second largest trading partner (after Australia), supplanting both the EU and the US in that regard.
In parallel, New Zealand joined the US-led â€œwar on terrorâ€ (sic) by deploying troops to Afghanistan from 2001 to the present (now in a diminished role), Iraq 2003-2013 and Iraq and Syria from 2015 to the present. It signed the bilateral Wellington (2010) and and Washington (2012) Declarations that made it a first tier defense partner of the US, and it has strengthened its intelligence ties with the Anglophone partners in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network as well as upgraded liaison relations between its human intelligence agency, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and Western counterparts such as ASIO (Australia), the CIA (US), DGSE (France) and others.
The trouble with the â€œeggs in different basketsâ€ approach is that it assumes that a balance of power can be maintained and ignores the possibility of conflict between major trade and security partners. The guiding principle of issue linkage was that security and trade partners trusted and did not conflict with each other. Conflict was limited to between alliance systems. Uncoupling of security and trade linkages consequently raises the possibility of conflict between competing security and trade partners, something that makes the delinked stance more akin to straddling a barbed wire fence while standing on ice blocks than balancing between competing interests.
The situation is made worse for small states trying to remain neutral between competing great powers. That situation, described by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian Wars when recounting the siege of Melos and its attempts to skirt the conflict between Athens and Sparta,occurs when a small state is forced to choose between two great power rivals. Although the Spartans accepted its neutrality, Melos refused Athenian demands to swear fealty and as a result was starved, invaded, ransacked, its men killed and its women and children taken prisoner.
Mutatis mutandis,Â this is increasingly likely to be the dilemma posed to New Zealand as a resulted of its bifurcated foreign policy. China and the US are on a collision course across a range of strategic issues, including security and trade, as the jockey for dominance in the Western Pacific. Chinese militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its claims to sovereignty over that entire water space (and territories claimed by five neighboring states), coupled with its aggressive use of â€œcheckbook diplomacyâ€ to win friends in and influence the foreign policies of Pacific Island nations, added to its rapid naval expansion and power projection into the blue waters of the Western Pacific have been met with a US â€œpivot to Asiaâ€ and a shifting of US military assets to the Pacific theater. The Chinese have tied their military expansionism in part to the â€œOne Belt One Roadâ€ trade initiative that seeks to extend China’s trade influence across continents (combining the old land-based Silk Road routes with a Maritime Silk Road linking Southern China and East Africa with ports in between). It also has a naval strategyâ€”the â€œchain of pearlsâ€ strategy– premised on moving beyond defence of what it considers to be its inshore seas (such as the South and East Asian Seas) and into the Indian and Pacific oceans where it can self-guarantee maritime security in its sea lanes of communication.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency the US has retrenched economically, abandoning free trade pacts such as the Transpacific Partnership in favor of an economic nationalist strategy premised on protective tariffs and bilateral trade agreements. It has turned its back on much of the rules-based liberal world order crafted over the past sixty years in favor of a unilateralist diplomatic approach heavily grounded in aggressive military re-assertion in contested areas.Â It has also abandoned issue-linkage between trade and security with ertswhile allies except to use â€œnational securityâ€ as an excuse to gut extant trade pacts (as the most recent G7 fiasco demonstrates).
The combination of economic nationalism and military-led diplomacy raises the possibility of open conflict with power contenders disinclined to bend to US demands. More broadly, the transition from the Cold War to the unipolar world in which the US was undisputed hegemon has now been followed by the rise of a contentious multipolar order in which rising and re-assertive powers contest US leadership in world affairs, China and Russia especially. Since conflict serves as a systems regulator during transitional international moments and because old alliance systems are under siege and new â€œpower blocsâ€ are being created, the likelihood that conflict will break out between ascendent and descendent powers as they jockey for supremacy in the new world order has increased markedly.
The jostling for position has many manifestations. One of them is the contest for influence in non-aligned and uncommitted states. Because of its bifurcated foreign policy New Zealand is seen as one such state by China, and recent controversies about PRC â€œinfluence operationsâ€ in Aotearoa parallel similar debates about the extent of Chinese â€œsoftâ€ subversion in the political and economic systems of Australia, Canada and several African and Latin American states. In fact, there is enough backlash throughout the Five Eyes network about PRC use of front organizations and other â€œmagical weaponsâ€ (including corrupt inducements to key actors) so as to have it rated as a threat as grave over the long-term as espionage and other intelligence collection activities conducted by the Chinese. They are seen as more pernicious than Western influence activities such as educational and cultural exchanges, etc. because they are more directly focused on influencing political and economic outcomes in ways favorable to the PRC and are designed to support (and are in fact closely linked to) the authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad.
The result is a growing ideological battle between the PRC and New Zealand’s Western allies, particularly the US and Australia, over the future direction of the country. On the one hand, the Chinese presence in New Zealand has been materially beneficial. But that has come with strings attached that are believed to compromise the integrity of New Zealand institutions. For its their part, New Zealand’s Anglophone orientation has not paid similar material dividends in recent times even though it gives it a seat at the table in security meetings with its traditional partners. And although Western influence in New Zealand has been benign due to shared values and cultural norms, the record of the the US when confronting democracies that stray from their preferred political and economic approaches demonstrates that there is a dark side to their influence as well (one only need think of US subversion of the Whitlam government in Australia and record in Latin America to get a sense of this).
New Zealand consequently finds itself caught on the horns of an impending dilemma: if push comes to shove between China and the US, which side should it choose? Even if the great power conflict is economic and diplomatic rather than military, it will be forced to choose within the next decade or so because New Zealand is too deeply tied to both countries to play the balancing game once the great power rivalry erupts into open conflict. The question is therefore not a matter of if but of when and for/against who?
There will be significant costs to whatever choice is made. Should New Zealand choose China (as a rising great power), it will lose the security umbrella and suffer the diplomatic wrath of its most traditional and closest international partners. The consequences will be felt in a loss of trade and diplomatic ostracism, but most acutely in security relations with other Western democracies. The Five Eyes listening posts in New Zealand will be dismantled and all of the highly sensitive equipment, to say nothing of archived records and stored data, will be removed under duress. This could well cause a revolt within the New Zealand intelligence community given its Anglophone orientation and when coupled with â€œdarkâ€ influence operations could prompt civil unrest amongst those disinclined to cast their lot with the Chinese. It could even prompt covert and overt hostile responses from the jilted partners, who will likely discontinue military relations with New Zealand, including sale and supply of equipment. There will be a moment of national crisis.
Should New Zealand opt to side with the US and its security allies in any future conflict with China, it will suffer serious economic losses as a result of Chinese retaliation. This has already been presaged by the Chinese response to New Zealand’s support for the International Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favor of the Philippines in its dispute with China over island-building in contested waters, where New Zealand goods were held up in port and CCP-controlled media editorials warned New Zealand over the consequences of siding against China in future disputes.
Given that the New Zealand economy is highly dependent on agricultural and other primary good exports to China as well as tourism and students from it, the economic costs of losing the Chinese market will not be balanced by increasing trade elsewhere or recruiting tourists and students from other countries. That includes trade with the European Union with or without Great Britain, particularly if New Zealand persists in negotiating a bilateral FTA with Russia in the face of EU sanctions against it. No other export market can compensate for the loss of China, and since New Zealand does not have enough value-added exports or a domestic service sector that can take up the slack, and because its tourism and foreign student markets have been framed around preferential treatment for Chinese (e.g. via special visa schemes), it is bound to suffer a severe economic downturn should its choice go against the PRC.
The PRC will also use its deeply embedded influence assets to sow discord within the Chinese expat community and within the power circles that it has penetrated. That could add to the general unrest caused by the turn away from such an economic powerhouse and benefactor. It will undoubtably use diplomatic as well as economic and perhaps even covert and overt hostile means to punish New Zealand and hurt its interests (say, by abandoning fishery and other conservation schemes in the South Pacific and using naval assets to protect its commercial fleet from foreign law enforcement). This list of retaliatory measures is long and the means by which they are delivered powerful.
So what could precipitate the forced choice? Consider the following scenarios which, if not exhaustive or immediate, are definitely within the realm of the plausible:
1. China continues to demand that New Zealand renounce its participation in the multinational naval conducting freedom of navigation and safe passage exercises in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. When New Zealand refuses to do so and send a ship on patrol just outside the 12 mile territorial limit claimed by the Chinese around, say, the Spratly Islands, the Chinese respond by suspending all agricultural imports from New Zealand for six months. New Zealand exporters go crazy over the loss of income and the government is pressured to give in to the Chinese demand; or, the government refuses to give in to the demand and a subsequent patrol by a New Zealand frigate is hit by an anti-ship missile fired from the Spratlys**. Several sailors are killed and the ship is crippled and towed into Chinese claimed waters and held until apologies are given for its “intrusion” and “provocation.” What then?
2. The Chinese announce the signing of a forward basing agreement with Fiji in which a deep water berthing complex, a 14,000 foot runway and facilities for a division’s worth of troops will be constructed near Suva. Soon after that the Russians announce that they have made a deal with the Chinese to rotate expeditionary forces through the base for tropical warfare training. Australia, France, the UK and US denounce the move as unacceptable. What does New Zealand do?
3. Australia and the US announce the uncovering of a Chinese espionage ring in the South Pacific. It includes several Chinese individuals, including dual nationals, in New Zealand. These are diplomats, students, business people and front agencies engaged in both intelligence gathering and subversive activities that extend into the Beehive and security bureaucracies. The allies call for the closure of Chinese diplomatic facilities and the expulsion of diplomats identified in the sweep and the arrest of those without diplomatic immunity on spying charges, including the possibility of their extradition to the US because of attempts to penetrate the Five Eyes listening posts and other sensitive sites in which the US has a presence. How does New Zealand respond?
4. The US imposes redoubled tariffs on New Zealand exports because it refuses to raise its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP and permit US pharmaceutical and IT companies to extend the lifetime of monopoly patents and proprietary intellectual property rights in New Zealand. It demands New Zealand take a more adversarial stance against China in regional and international fora and reinforces its position by restricting intelligence flows and military-to-military contacts within 5 Eyes and between the two countries, including a cut off of US Air Force resupply flights to NZÂ Antarctic bases from Christchurch.
Strategic planners in Wellington may not like to ponder these unpalatable scenarios and the unpleasant consequences that a forced choice entails regardless of the nature of the decision. But given the way great power rivalries are playing our at present, they need to consider the possibility that the time will come when the “eggs in different baskets” approach is proven detrimental to the national well-being and a choice between great power poisons has to be considered.
** Less readers think this scenario far-fetched, be aware that it would demonstrate Chinese resolve to defend its self-proclaimed territories knowing that New Zealand’s larger security partners will not risk war over an attack on the “weakest link,” in the multinational naval coalition, especially given New Zealand’s seeming reluctance to denounce Chinese norm violations in the region. That will force a diplomatic resolution, which itself is a victory for the PRC.