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A week or so ago, Helen Clark and I argued that New Zealand would be nuts to abandon the independent foreign policy which has been a characteristic of New Zealand life for most of the last 40 years, a policy which has seen us retain a close and cordial relationship with the United States and Australia on the one hand while developing an increasingly cordial relationship with China on the other.


As noted in our earlier article, this policy of being cordial to both the US and China was not only not opposed by the United States but was explicitly welcomed by the US until just a few years ago.


But over the last few years, particularly since the presidency of Donald Trump, the US has been treating China like a hostile competitor – imposing tariffs on imports from China, denying China access to a range of high-tech American exports, and increasingly signing up countries which might be relied on to provide military support to the US in the event of any conflict between the two Powers.


In other words, we have what looks like a typical Thucydides’ trap situation, where an established Power (the US) feels threatened by a rising Power (China).  As Harvard University Professor Graham Allison has argued in his book on this subject, there have been some occasions in the last 500 years where this situation does not result in war, but in most cases, war has been the result, with devastating results for both Powers.  Established Powers do not willingly relinquish their dominant status to rising Powers.


Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, the US has in recent years not only been taking measures to slow China’s growth but has also been working hard to build military alliances in order to maintain its own dominant position in the scheme of things, including in the western Pacific.  It has created the Quad, comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US, with the explicit intention of creating a bulwark against Chinese expansion.  It has created AUKUS, comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, again quite explicitly to contain Chinese expansion.  Despite having long recognized Taiwan as a part of one China (since 1979), the US has in recent years provided an increasing flow of weapons to Taiwan for the explicit purpose of helping Taiwan ward off any attempt by China to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.


Why on earth would New Zealand want to buy into that argument?  Well, if there was evidence that China wanted to radically expand its territory – quite possibly even as far as New Zealand, as some of those who commented on the earlier article suggested – perhaps we should immediately seek shelter behind the United States because we clearly do not have anywhere near sufficient military capacity to ward off a Chinese attack, and that would be true even if we still had a single squadron of fighter aircraft and immediately sought to double or treble our military spending.


Certainly, China has in recent years hugely expanded its military forces in response to what China sees as US encirclement – with US forces based in South Korea, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia.     But there is no evidence that I am aware of that China seeks a radical expansion of its territory.  It clearly has its eyes set on Taiwan, and equally seems determined to ensure that it controls the South China Sea, through which most of its international trade travels. 


But there is no evidence that I am aware of that China seeks to conquer South Korea or Japan, or the Philippines, or Indonesia, let alone Australia and New Zealand.   Apart from building military structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea designed to ensure China can control those waterways, China has only a single overseas military base (in Djibouti), in contrast to the 800 or so military bases which Google advises the US maintains.


Throughout history, China never had an offshore empire of the kind which several European Powers had.  When in the 15th century Chinese naval ships reached the east coast of Africa, the Emperor decided that the rest of the world held no interest for China, and ordered the entire fleet destroyed.


Once upon a time, the US was convinced that the Vietnam War was about blocking China’s push into South East Asia.  Millions of deaths later – mainly of Vietnamese – we realised that historically China and Vietnam have been enemies, and the Vietnam War was to a large extent a war of independence, first from the French and then from the Americans.  Now of course the US courts Vietnam, despite the fact that, like China, Vietnam is a communist country.


After years of being largely closed to the outside world, China decided in the latter part of the 20th century to open up to the rest of the world and expand its economy.  With US (and New Zealand) encouragement, China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and since that time China’s trade with the rest of the world has expanded enormously.  It is said that China is now the largest trading partner for some 130 countries, as it is for New Zealand of course.  And not just our largest trading partner, but our largest trading partner by a very considerable margin; and the largest trading partner for our second largest trading partner, Australia.  So, like a great many other countries, we have a considerable stake in China’s economic success.


Some of those who commented on our earlier article suggested that were war to break out between the US and China neutrality would not be an option.  But that is clearly nonsense.  Perhaps neutrality would not be an option for a country in China’s immediate vicinity, with substantial American forces in that country. And perhaps we would choose to take sides.  But that is entirely different from being unable to remain neutral.  Plenty of countries remained neutral during World War II, such as virtually all of the countries in South America.


Others suggested we could avoid being in this dilemma, caused in part by our heavy dependence on China as a trading partner, by choosing to import much less from China by becoming more self-sufficient.   Surprising as it may seem, international trade is already a smaller proportion of our economy than is the case in other small countries, and to become even less dependent on international trade would involve a potentially very substantial cost in terms of lower living standards, as we went back to making import substitutes inefficiently.


Still others suggested that we should align with countries with “western values”, a belief in individual freedom, and so on.  That clearly implies an alliance with the US.  But the emerging power struggle between the US and China is not about “western values” but rather about an old-fashioned struggle for dominance.  The US has long been allied with countries which are a very long way from being democracies (think Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and is now actively courting Vietnam.


To me, Singapore’s foreign policy is a model to follow.  Singapore appears to have a cordial relationship with both the US and China.  It is certainly not involved in any formal military relationship with either country, and seems unlikely to be so any time soon.  In April 2022, Singapore’s Prime Minister formally stated that Singapore is not an ally of the US, would not conduct military operations on behalf of the US, and would not seek direct military support from the US.  Why wouldn’t that work for New Zealand?

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63 comentários

Brian Marshall
Brian Marshall
22 de fev.

China is not our friend, but is out trading partner who we have friendly relations with.

If China is doing to us what it is in the United States, then we would (or at least should) be doing what Donald Trump was doing. The more you know, the more you come to a better understanding of world affairs.


Max Ritchie
Max Ritchie
21 de fev.

Brash might pooh-pooh the Domino Theory but Lee Kuan Yew (and an awful lot of other people) thought it was realistic at the time. And he might ask the people of Tibet about China’s expansionary aims. No country has permanent friends, only permanent interests, according to Lord Palmerston. And our permanent interests include the ability to import and export which means keeping the sea lanes ,open. We won’t do that with Brash’s laughable EEZ fisheries protection-only armed forces. We will require allies, starting with Australia and therefore an association with the USA. But that doesn’t mean that we have to follow anyone blindly. But it does mean paying our way. Australia is moving to 2.4%; we must too. Neutrality -…


It is so good to read from two people I have voted for at different times, in opposition parties, agree on something this important. It is beyond politics; it is about what is good for the people of New Zealand. Of course it would work for New Zealand. It is the only sensible way to go.


Timothy Bridges
Timothy Bridges
20 de fev.

Not sure the Western Values argument is well made. The difference between a China and the likes of Saudi Arabia and Vietnam is that the former could become the leading power globally whereas the latter examples clearly cannot. With that leadership comes the threat to Western values


The USA, China and Russia are NOT going to invade or attack one another directly because that would almost certainly escalate and involve nuclear weapons. Their wars will continue to be fought in other countries and we are signing up to become one of those possible war zones. I am still wondering who this enemy we need to be defended from is? An enemy is usually someone that regards you as a threat to their sovereignty, independence and survival or an omnipotent megalomaniac that wants to rule the world.

The motivation of invading other people's territory is usually access to the resources in that territory. China and our other trading partners already have access to the resources of New Zealand without the need…

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