After the Obama presidency, international relations have become increasingly strained. Since the trade war with China, which began under President Trump, relations between the United States and China have become strained. China’s assertiveness in various spheres, such as the South China Sea, has contributed to the tension.
The growing rivalry between the two superpowers seems to make it more difficult to adopt a neutral position and nations may be increasingly forced to take sides. The recent AUKUS pact adds to the complexity as New Zealand’s (NZ) most significant political ally, Australia, appears to have aligned strongly with the United States.
Given the growing rivalry and complexity, how could a small nation like New Zealand navigate international diplomacy?
Doing what is right?
Beware of moral judgments in relation to diplomacy. Great power rivalry in the 21st century is not like World War II, where one side was “good” and the other “bad”. To illustrate, if New Zealand were to choose between the United States and China, how would we rate the US foreign policy disasters that have led to the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to Uyghur abuse and forced labor in China? Trying to balance the sins of the Great Powers risks a futile “whataboutism” that involves impossible value judgments.
Not to say there is no place for value judgments, nations need to know what they represent. New Zealand’s commitment to being nuclear-free is perhaps the best example of this. It would have been much easier, economically and politically, not to adopt a nuclear-free stance, but in the end New Zealand’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and a nuclear-free Pacific prevailed.
Political and cultural considerations are also relevant: with which nations have we been historically aligned and on which we can rely (for the most part) to defend our interests in the global community of 195 countries? New Zealand’s political agreements, as encapsulated in agreements such as the Five Eyes, APEC, and the recently signed global and progressive agreement for the Transpacific Partnership, largely reflect our commitment to democracy, multilateralism, free trade and the engagement with the Pacific. A nation that does not share these political values / objectives would perhaps be less deserving or more difficult to deal with.
The commitments to multilateralism and free trade are worth discussing. Global powers tend to be less dependent on other nations and as a result simply have less need or interest in cooperating. For example, “America First” under President Trump led the United States to withdraw from the TPP, scuttling an international collaboration agreement long in preparation and led in part by New Zealand. This example also shows how a small country could be left speechless if internal political considerations within a global power changed.
Although we discuss it separately here, we recognize that economic and political interests are not mutually exclusive.
The economy is often the trump card in calibrating international relations. Economic self-interest tends to reflect a country’s geographic location. If we look at New Zealand’s top 10 export partners, nine are on the Pacific side, with only one (the UK) outside the New Zealand neighborhood.
Pissing off a major trading partner is a recipe for job loss and GDP decline and the smaller you are, the higher the stakes. Take the Sino-American trade war, if the US economy were the size of New Zealand’s it is possible, even probable, that the war would never have started. Due to globalization, the complexity of many products (especially technology) and simply the size, New Zealand cannot produce many of the goods imported from a country like China. As a result, attempting to cut China out economically would have a much greater impact on New Zealand than on China … Similarly, putting yourself in a position where China has decided to cut back on trade with New Zealand for political reasons, it could be much more harmful to us than a country like the United States, or even Australia. For these reasons, New Zealand needs to be far more careful than most of our larger traditional allies when it comes to stepping on other countries’ toes.
The “national interest”
So what is New Zealand’s national interest?
The logical answer is to keep doing what we are doing, walking in the middle way whenever and wherever possible. Avoid frustrating both superpowers in order to maintain warm and friendly relations, while accepting that this means that we will not be “best friends” with either of them. New Zealand should also avoid being sucked into a false dichotomy (e.g. siding with the United States or China). In practice, international relations are rarely an either / or decision. The Sino-American rivalry may make it more difficult to go somewhere in between, but many options regarding relations that New Zealand can pursue.
Our story offers a useful warning to New Zealand in terms of excessive alignment, politically and / or economically, with a single country. When the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, it didn’t really matter that New Zealand had fought two foreign wars to defend the UK. The country’s trade was devastated when New Zealand dairy and meat products were replaced with those of the UK’s new European partners. As a small nation, it is possible that New Zealand has a better chance of being exploited, or bullied, for aligning itself too closely, rather than maintaining balance in its relationships.
However, we need to be clear about our red lines. Unprovoked military aggression by China (or any other country) in Asia Pacific could justify a change in New Zealand’s position. At the same time, in the absence of a red line to be crossed, New Zealand should be wary of joining the United States or its other allies in an attempt to restrict China politically or economically (e.g. AUKUS-style treaties). For starters, New Zealand’s involvement wouldn’t move the needle and, in any case, the stakes for New Zealand are much higher.
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