In recent weeks, there has been increasing talk about New Zealand’s joining the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance, perhaps not the full alliance because that involves nuclear-powered submarines but rather Pillar II of the alliance, to demonstrate our support for our traditional allies. A few days ago, Winston Peters, as Foreign Affairs Minister, gave a speech strongly implying that we should become more closely aligned to our traditional allies, and Christopher Luxon, in Australia this week, made it clear that we would need to look closely at becoming more closely associated with AUKUS.
But it is entirely unclear why either man should think it is in New Zealand’s interests to line up militarily with the United States against China, a country which is already by far our largest trading partner. We have a Free Trade Agreement with China, and have had since 2008, but have to date been unable to achieve a similar agreement with the United States. The Chinese economy is already larger than the US economy, and given China’s population is four times that of the US, that disparity in economic size will almost certainly continue to grow. In short, China is hugely important to New Zealand economically and that importance will grow.
It is sometimes argued that we should be closely allied to the United States, by strong implication against China, because the former is a democracy and the latter is not. But the rivalry between the US and China has almost nothing to do with democracy. The US is, and has been, allied with lots of countries which are not democracies – think Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and now Vietnam – and the US itself is classified by The Economist as a “flawed democracy”.
Rather what this is about is a conventional struggle between an established Power and a rising Power. Graham Allison, Harvard University History professor, described it well in his 2017 book Destined for War: Can the United States and China escape Thucydides’ Trap?. He argued that war between an established Power and a rising Power was, if not inevitable, then nearly so. He looked back over the last 500 years and found 16 cases where an established Power was challenged by a rising Power. In 12 of those 16 cases, war was the result. The US is now unquestionably the established Power – unchallenged for nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but now challenged by China.
Unsurprisingly, the US seeks to maintain its dominance. Since President Monroe pronounced the so-called Monroe doctrine in 1823, the US has demanded the right to be the dominant Power throughout the Western Hemisphere, and woe betide any outside Power which tried to butt in. President Kennedy had been willing to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union in 1962 when the latter placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US pushed NATO eastwards towards the Russian border. And in Asia, the US seeks to preserve its absolute dominance through military alliances with South Korea, Japan, Guam, the Philippines and Australia. It asserts its right to sail naval vessels up and down China’s coast in a way which it would not tolerate were Chinese naval vessels to sail up and down the western seaboard of the US. It supplies weapons to Taiwan despite having recognized that Taiwan is part of China since 1979.
Of course, the US is free to do what it likes in terms of asserting its military dominance, in Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. But it is entirely unclear why we should risk jeopardizing our relationship with our largest trading partner for the sake of maintaining US hegemony in Asia.
There is absolutely no evidence that China threatens New Zealand militarily. Indeed, there is no evidence that China seeks territorial expansion at all beyond the limited case of Taiwan. Unlike virtually all of the European Powers, China was never an expansionist military power, and that no doubt explains why it fell victim to several European Powers in the 19th century, starting with the Opium Wars in 1839-42. But having been humiliated by European Powers in the 19th century, and by Japan in the 20th century, it clearly intends to resist being humiliated by the US in the 21st century.
We would also be wise to recall that over at least the last half century, US military adventures have been disasters, both for the US and for the countries directly involved.
The Vietnam War cost some 60,000 US military deaths and an estimated 3.5 million Vietnamese casualties, more than half of them civilians. And Vietnam is now an American ally, or at least no longer an enemy. The Iraq war was on a smaller scale in terms of loss of life, but hardly a success in any dimension, now with an unstable government under the malign influence of Iran. The military occupation of Afghanistan was very costly for the US and its allies, was even more costly in terms of loss of life for the Afghans, and following US withdrawal has left Afghanistan in a total mess.
At this point, our Prime Minister describes Australia as our only ally. But that should surely not imply that, just because some Australians want to buy into America’s desire to remain the dominant Power in East Asia, we should buy into that nonsense also. (Not all Australians are enthusiastic about AUKUS – former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating describes AUKUS as the worst deal done by any Australian Government in the last century.)
In fact, we have absolutely no need for a military alliance with anybody, especially if that ties us to the AUKUS deal. We do need to maintain some military (and especially naval) capacity to ensure our very extensive economic zone is free from those who might plunder our fish resources. But as Bob Jones argued in the context of his leadership of the New Zealand Party in 1984, we probably don’t need to waste many scarce resources on defence at all – Fiji is not about to attack us.
21 December 2023
This article was first published at the NZ Herald