The worm has turned when it comes to the relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the West. Something has happened to sour the relationship beyond repair, and the strains are not limited to US-PRC, Australian-PRC or UK-PRC bilateral relations. Other countries, notably in the EU and Southeast Asia and including traditional rival India, have replaced two decades of offering warmth and goodwill with increasingly frosty and suspicious attitudes towards the PRC. That seems to be due to a combination of PRC militarism and belligerence in places like the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Line of Control in the Himalayas separating it from India, but also as a result of Chinese sharp power influence operations in liberal democracies, its coercive trade diplomacy, ongoing Chinese cyber espionage, cyber theft and cyber warfare campaigns launched against a swathe of countries (including New Zealand), its dollar and debt diplomacy in Africa and South America where debt for equity swaps are accompanied by the colonisation by Chinese labor of critical infrastructure sites in countries lacking the resources to undertake large scale projects like port modernisation or power generation, and the adoption of “wolf warrior” diplomacy where insults and bullying have become mainstays of PRC diplomatic discourse, particularly but not limited to the issue of human rights and adherence to international norms.
With regards to the latter, in some cases Chinese behaviour is so egregious, such as stationing hundreds of fishing boats outside the marine reserve surrounding the Galapagos Islands or off the southeastern and southwestern coasts of South America and Southern Africa, often using the cover of night to poach in the Exclusive Economic Zones (when not territorial waters) of various countries, that countries otherwise prone to welcome the PRC as an antidote to traditional US or colonial power dominance have started to review their positions with regards to it.
The faith once placed in incorporating the PRC as a good global citizen into the community of advanced nations by admitting it into international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and giving it leadership roles in others like the World Health Organisation and various UN agencies has not yielded the results that were hoped for. Instead, the errors of so-called modernisation theorists of the 1950s were repeated: rather than encouraging Chinese democracy by exposing it to “Western” values and helping expand its middle class on the back of increased international trade opportunities and the corresponding rise in material opportunities associated with it–something that was thought would lead to a better appreciation by and reproduction of democratic values by those emerging middle classes who would grow to see democracy as the political equivalent of the “free” economic market–under Xi Jinping the PRC has become more authoritarian, more state capitalist, more territorially expansionist, more normatively untrustworthy and more militarily bellicose. Instead of a global good citizen, it is now increasingly seen in the West as a very large bully on the world stage.
This does not absolve the US and various colonial powers of their histories. But it points to the fact that the thirty year period of relative inter-state peace after the end of the Cold War is coming to its conclusion. What lies ahead is unknown but it is likely to be marked by conflict of one sort or another or a combination thereof. The strategic postures of the US, UK, France and Australia all now explicitly identify the PRC as the primary military “peer competitor” (i.e. the enemy) that they must prepare to fight. Even NZ’s defense posture has shifted from unconventional warfare scenarios against irregular non-state actors to involvement in interstate conflicts (although the focus on peacekeeping operations remains). Reflected in defense procurement programs over the next ten years, the shift in war planning is answered by Chinese redoubling of its efforts to expand its fleet and improve the sophistication and size of its land and air-based forces. It also has renewed its bilateral military ties with Russia and courted the alliance of a variety of strategically important authoritarians regimes such as Iran and Turkey. It seems that it is only a matter of time before either by miscalculation, misperception or misadventure it will be involved in an armed engagement with a Western or Western-backed adversary, at which point the escalatory and expansionist potential of such conflict is limited only by the threat of nuclear war.
This puts small states like NZ between a rock and hard place. The diplomatic pressure is being felt in Wellington and Nanaia Mahuta’s speech to the China and New Zealand Business Council reflected the attempts to massage the stresses now apparent in its relationship with the PRC. The question is whether NZ can continue to employ its “softly-softly” approach in the face of the Western turn against the PRC and the latter’s increasingly acerbic responses to criticism of its actions at home and abroad. There can be little doubt that at this juncture if push comes to shove NZ will side with the West as a matter of values and principle. It has signalled as much and, with its commitment to diversifying its trade relations outside of the bilateral ties with the PRC, is setting the pragmatic grounds for doing so even if the short term costs of any deterioration in the relationship with the PRC proves onerous and wide-spread throughout the economy. But so long as the quarrel between Great Powers is limited to podiums and pens, then NZ can hope to finesse the contradictions in its strategic posture.
The answer on how to do so may lay in thinking of NZ’s position in the face of the US/West-PRC rivalry as a strategic balancing act in which the fixed points are appeasement versus confrontation and the slackline between the two is cooperation. The key is to find an equilibrium point along that line given specific issues and changing circumstances. There is plenty of common ground for NZ to serve as a honest broker and fair interlocutor when it comes to PRC-West relations even as it reaffirms its commitment to Western liberal values. Pragmatism and principle will undoubtably factor into the centre of gravity upon which to balance NZ foreign policy in that regard. The goal is to be nimble when demonstrating a desire to cooperate on selected issues given the competing demands by trade and security partners to appease or confront each other. Sometimes the equilibrium point may be closer to the PRC position, sometimes it will tilt in favour of the Western stance. They key to success lies in refraining from entering into broadly binding agreements or commitments and to adopt an issue-by-issue, case by case approach that serves to insulate any particular bilateral decision from the larger geopolitical struggles surrounding it.
That may turn out to not be feasible if the contending Great states do not accept NZ’s “siloed” approach and will not be a permanent foreign policy solution given the apparent inevitability of a Great Power stand-off in the medium term future. But it provides a means of finding the optimal equilibrium point on the diplomatic slackline that is NZs transitional position vis a vis China and the West until the new multipolar world system is firmly established.