A bridge too far.

The Labour-led government in New Zealand has settled on a new mantra when it comes to addressing the US-China rivalry. It claims that New Zealand is ideally situated to become a bridge between the two great powers and an honest broker when it comes to their interaction with the Southwest Pacific. This follows the long-held multi-party consensus that New Zealand’s foreign policy is independent and autonomous, and based on respect for international norms and multinational institutions.

The problem is that the new foreign policy line is a misleading illusion. It ignores historical precedent, the transitional nature of the current international context, the character and strategic objectives of the US and the PRC and the fact that New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous in its foreign affairs.

The historical precedent is that in times of conflict between great powers, small states find it hard to remain neutral and certainly do not serve as bridges between them. The dilemma is exemplified by the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Melos expressed neutrality between warring Athens and Sparta. Although Sparta accepted its position Athens did not and Melos was subjugated by the Athenians.

In stable world times small states may exercise disproportionate influence in global affairs because the geopolitical status quo is set and systemic changes are incremental and occur within the normative framework and around the margins of the system as given. When international systems are unstable and in transition, small states are relegated to the sidelines while great powers hash out the contours of the emerging world order—often via conflict. Such is the case now, which has seen the unipolar system dominated by the US that followed the bi-polar Cold War now being replaced by an emerging multi-polar system aggregating new and resurgent powers, some of which are hostile to the West.

In this transitional moment the US is in relative decline and has turned inward under a Trump administration that is polarizing at home and abroad. It is still a formidable economic and military power but it is showing signs of internal weakness and external exhaustion that have made it more reactive and defensive in its approach to global affairs. China is a rising great power with global ambition and long-term strategic plans, particularly when it comes to power projection in the Western Pacific Rim. It sees itself as the new regional power in Asia, replacing the US, and has extended its influence world-wide.That includes involvement in the domestic politics and economic matters of Pacific Island states, including Australia and New Zealand.

China’s rise and the US decline are most likely to first meet in the Western Pacific. When they do, the consequences will be far reaching. Already the US has started a trade war with the Chinese while reinforcing its armed presence in the region at a time when China cannot (as of yet) militarily challenge it. China has responded by deepening its dollar and debt diplomacy in Polynesia and Melanesia as part of the Belt and Road initiative, now paralleled by an increased naval and air presence extending from the South and East China Seas into the blue water shipping lanes of the Pacific.

There lies the rub. New Zealand is neither independent or autonomous when it confronts this emerging strategic landscape. Instead, it has dichotomized its foreign policy. On the security front, it is militarily tied to the US via the Wellington and Washington Declarations of 2010 and 2012. It is a founding member and integral component of the Anglophone 5 Eyes signal intelligence gathering network led by the US. It is deeply embedded in broader Western security networks, whose primary focus of concern, beyond terrorism, is the hostile activities of China and Russia against liberal democracies and their interests.

On trade, New Zealand has an addict-like dependency on agricultural commodity and primary good exports, particularly milk solids. Its largest trading partner and importer of those goods is China. Unlike Australia, which can leverage its export of strategic minerals that China needs for its continued economic growth and industrial ambitions under the China 2025 program, New Zealand’s exports are elastic, substitutable by those of competitors and inconsequential to China’s broader strategic planning. This makes New Zealand extremely vulnerable to Chinese economic retaliation for any perceived slight, something that the Chinese have been clear to point out when it comes to subjects such as the South China island-building dispute or Western concerns about the true nature of Chinese developmental aid to Pacific Island Forum countries.

As a general rule issue linkage is the best approach to trade and security: trading partners make for good security partners because their interests are complementary (security protects trade and trade brings with it the material prosperity upon which security is built). Absent that, separating and running trade and security relations in parallel is practicable because the former do not interfere with the latter and vice versa. But when trade and security relations are counterpoised, that is, when a country trades preferentially with one antagonist while maintaining security ties with another, then the makings of a foreign policy conundrum are made. This is exactly the situation New Zealand finds itself in, or what can be called a self-made “Melian dilemma.”

Under such circumstances it is delusional to think that New Zealand can serve as a bridge between the US and China, or as an honest broker when it comes to great power projection in the Southwest Pacific. Instead, it is diplomatically caught between a rock and a hard place even though in practice it leans more West than East.

The latter is an important point. Although a Pacific island nation, New Zealand is, by virtue of its colonial and post-colonial history, a citizen of the West. The blending of Maori and Pasifika culture gave special flavor to the Kiwi cultural mix but it never strayed from its Western orientation during its modern history. That, however, began to change with the separation of trade from security relations as of the 1980s (where New Zealand began to seek out non-Western trade partners after its loss of preferred trade status with UK markets), followed by increasingly large waves of non-European immigration during the next three decades. Kiwi culture has begun to change significantly in recent years and so with it its international orientation. Western perspectives now compete with Asian and Middle Eastern orientations in the cultural milieu, something that has crept into foreign policy debates and planning. The question is whether the new cultural mix will eventuate in a turn away from Western values and towards those of Eurasia.

The government’s spin may just be short term diplomatic nicety posing as a cover for its dichotomous foreign policy strategy. Given its soft-peddling of the extent of Chinese influence operations in the country, it appears reluctant to confront the PRC on any contentious issue because it wants to keep trade and diplomatic lines open. Likewise, its silence on Trump’s regressions on climate change, Trans-Pacific trade and support for international institutions may signal that the New Zealand government is waiting for his departure before publicly engaging the US on matters of difference. Both approaches may be prudent but are certainly not examples of bridging or brokering.

While New Zealand audiences may like it, China and the US are not fooled by the bridge and broker rhetoric. They know that should push come to shove New Zealand will have to make a choice. One involves losing trade revenues, the other involves losing security guarantees. One involves backing a traditional ally, the other breaking with tradition in order to align with a rising power. Neither choice will be pleasant and it behooves foreign policy planners to be doing cost/benefits analysis on each because the moment of decision may be closer than expected.

11 thoughts on “A bridge too far.

  1. Hope you are feeling a lot better Pablo!

    “…The government’s spin may just be short term diplomatic nicety posing as a cover for its dichotomous foreign policy strategy…”

    I know/knew a lovely chap at university who joined MFAT and turned into an arrogant, self-regarding neoliberal technocratic plonker. He is fanatically committed to globalisation, free trade, free markets and New Zealand as an open exemplar of neoliberal social and economic settings (including open borders, fee movement of people etc). Issues like nationalism or populism or national security great power conflict are to be treated with rolling eyes in the first two cases and ideological rejected with magical/wishful thinking in the latter two.

    All of which leads me to think that maybe the advice our politicians are getting is a whole steaming pile of horseshit from technocrats who are so ideologically wedded to a particular world view they are incapable of rationally assessing the facts.

  2. I realise it’s unfashionable to argue this these days, but isn’t merely our colonial or post colonial history that makes us a citizen of the West but also certain shared values.
    You say neither choice will be pleasant, but in the midst of a million Ugyhur being disappeared the idea of siding with the ‘rising power’ if that what it came to wouldn’t get past go on the left if it wasn’t that their reflexive anti Americanism didn’t magically turn then into realists.

  3. Millerman:

    I deliberately avoided mention of the values debate but it was implicit between the lines. People can draw there own conclusions about the relative worth of certain values, be they Asian or Western. That is part of the calculus that the govt should be making, as it has an impact on things like immigration policy, social policy, education policy, policing etc. My role, such as it is, is to point out the looming problems and inherent contradictions of the current foreign policy line. Needless to say, I have a personal take on the values argument and that line but it is not relevant here.

    I agree 100 percent with you on the reflexive anti-Americanism of (some of) the Left. Be it old anti-nuclear campaigners, assorted anarchists, anti-imperialists and anti-corporate advocates, post-modern hipsters and people like those who refuse to defend Ann Marie Brady against the criminal harassment she has endured because of what she has written, the NZ is all too often blinded by its own prejudices. Again, my role here is to be agnostic about foreign policy choices rather than advocating one way or the other.

  4. The rot in MFAT began in the early 2000s when trade zealots began to take over at the expense of more well-rounded diplomats. This accelerated under McCully and Groser to the point that many well-respected diplomats including non-proliferation and conflict resolution specialists were purged via retirement, payouts or simply leaving. As a result the ministry is unbalanced in terms of expertise, with the trade zealots–defined as being vulgar Ricardians who see trade for trade’s sake as good regardless of context or circumstance–predominating over all others. Since the trade zealots share the London City view of themselves as being masters of the universe (at least in the pre-2008 incarnation), it is no surprise that they are arrogant plonkers (I would use a stronger term).

    That makes me agree wit your last paragraph although I also believe that politicians from both major parties prefer to have things that way since they can then spend more time on domestic issues while being able to blame “advice” on any screw-ups or negative consequences.

  5. Hi Pablo

    I think we’ve been round this mulberry bush before, but I think you are idealising 90s era MFAT. I had many friends and acquaintances in the Ministry and associated departments at the time, and under Don McKinnon (a classic Tory) the free trade groupthink was still extremely strong. It may have grown stronger still in the 2000s, but I think saying the rot began in the 2000s is underestimating how long this free trade orthodoxy has had an iron grip on the NZ civil service.

  6. Pingback: The idea of NZ as a bridge between the US and China is 100% pure fantasy | The Spinoff

  7. President Trump’s latest remarks on the Saudi regime’s ways of dealing with its critics are unhelpful to those who wish to make a case that the moral and ethical values of the US administration are in some way superior to those of the PRC. So let’s keep the discussion to the practicality of New Zealand’s so-called “bridge” or “honest broker” policy vis-a-vis China and the US. I don’t hear anyone suggesting it can work or is in any way plausible.
    However the discussion has also brought up institutional factors which make it difficult for the New Zealand state to put into effect any policy that would be more plausible, rational and viable than the “honest broker” pipe dream.
    I think that before you can change the policy you may have to change the institutions behind it, and that is a hard ask.

  8. Yes Erewhon,

    You are correct saying that the shift to a trade-centered foreign policy did begin in the 1990s. I use the early 2000s benchmark because that was the point that MFAT ramped up its shedding non-trade experts and replacing them whole-scale with trade zealots.

  9. Some hope perhaps

    Exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui announced this week he is creating a $100 million fund to aid the victims of Chinese communist repression under current leader Xi Jinping.

    Guo announced the creation of the fund, which will also be used to finance investigations into Chinese government financial activities and those of its supporters in the West, at press conference in New York City on Tuesday.

    The former Chinese insider also revealed in a presentation for reporters details on the disappearance, imprisonment, or death of 56 prominent Chinese nationals, including the mysterious death in July of Wang Jian, one of China’s wealthiest business leaders.

    “A lot of people lost their freedom, a lot of people disappeared,” Guo said through an interpreter. “What we see here is the tip of the iceberg.”

    I’ll bet when the Chinese Communists went for “restricted capitalism” in the early 80’s they never saw this $28 billion nightmare coming.

    Hope he’s got a good protection detail.

  10. I’m not even sure that it began in the 90s. I think you’d have to go all the way back from the 1960s when the first graduates of US and British universities began returning to take up positions in the NZ civil service. At the time they were a minority but even as early as 1980 they had attained the majority, if not across the service as a whole, in certain critical departments (notably, Treasury) and they colonised inwards due to intra-service hierarchies (e.g. the idea that other departments should take direction from Treasury). I would say the critical inflection point in this – as in so many other things – was the 1984 election, when the neoliberals obtained a dominance at the policy-making level which they were then able to successfully weaponise and export.

    Bruce Jesson wrote a lot about this, from a critical standpoint of course. The one flaw with Bruce’s analysis IMO is that he focuses strongly on the “foreign” nature of neoliberalism, and while he’s right that the seed was planted outside NZ and brought back by people with external experience, this isn’t really the main problem with neoliberalism. If neoliberalism was a totally made-in-NZ idea, it would be just as terrible, and most of the alternatives to neoliberalism also originate outside NZ, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice them because they’re “foreign”.

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