2. Dunne: Why risk poking the bears?

Foreign Minister and Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters and Defence Minister Ron Mark. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Former MP Peter Dunne asks why the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister have chosen to provoke China and Russia in their latest Defence Review. He sees it as a spurious, vainglorious and risky move for a small trading nation.

In a time of heightened international uncertainty, the literal war of words between New Zealand and China over the references to China in the recently released Defence Review assume a greater than usual significance.

Current circumstances make this far more than the normal flurry of words between innately cautious, constantly-furrowed-brow diplomats for whom avoiding offence is paramount.

The emerging volatility in international relations brought on by the rivalry between the bull-headed and crass President Trump and his wily and ruthless antithesis Vladimir Putin; the mounting chaos in Britain as Brexit starts to fall apart and the political upheaval that this and the rising flow of refugees is causing across Europe generally; and the continuing emergence of China as a major political and economic power are combining to create a potential powder keg probably last seen in the late 1930s.

While New Zealand is a very small player in all these events, with no capacity whatsoever to influence their outcome despite the fond imaginings of some of our political leaders to the contrary, we are not immune from them. We live too far away from the scene of any likely action, in what we have hitherto been led to believe by a former Prime Minister was a “benign strategic environment”.

So we presently have the luxury of being able to snigger at President Trump’s latest interventions on the world stage; and, we can be as taken aback as we like by the latest contortions in Britain’s attempts to leave the European Union. But that may not always remain the case.

As far as the European Union and Britain are concerned, it is in New Zealand’s interests that the process, whatever the eventual outcome, run as smoothly as possible. Putative free trade deals with both hang in the balance, with initial discussions already underway. There is no doubt that New Zealand would benefit greatly from both arrangements if they can be finalised, but we are in no position to force an outcome while the far more significant issue of Brexit remains unresolved.

Since the dramatic announcement of diplomatic recognition in December 1972, New Zealand has been moving doggedly and persistently closer to China. In the near half century since, general people-to-people and business contacts, as well as political, scientific and cultural exchanges have intensified to the extent where China entered into its first ever free trade agreement – with New Zealand – in 2008. It is now New Zealand’s largest trading partner.

Although there can be criticism of the extent to which New Zealand has failed to leverage this position politically when it comes to matters of human rights and China’s treatment of dissidents, and while there has been some xenophobic, bordering on downright racist, reaction to the increasing Chinese presence at many levels in New Zealand, the relationship has generally developed positively.

Where New Zealand, along with others, has had concerns about Chinese expansionism in the South Pacific, we have expressed those directly to China through the regular political exchanges. On the occasions we have gone outside these channels, such as the case of the former Foreign Minister’s public comments last year about China’s occupation of various offshore islands, China’s reaction has been swift and severe.

Mentioning Russia and China directly

All of which makes the apparently deliberately decision to particularise China and Russia in the recent Defence Review as potential threats that much more surprising. The concerns behind them are not new, and have been long-held, as well as shared by many of the countries to whom we are traditionally allied. Making public this long known open secret has been hailed by those responsible as a proud blow for transparency and clear talk at last in international relations. In reality, however, it is nothing but an act of unnecessary foolishness.

While there is no serious suggestion anywhere that world peace is at risk in the way it was in the 1930s, the lesson of volatile periods of international relations is that things can change very quickly indeed. After all, New Zealand went from concluding “most favoured nation” status with Germany in 1938, to war a year later, and Japan had been the first country outside the then British Empire that New Zealand concluded a trade agreement with in 1928.

Diplomacy is often pilloried for its timidity and its narrow focus on the actual language nations use in their communications and agreements with each other. Diplomats frequently appear paranoid about their political masters being backed (or backing themselves) into a corner. Although much of this is exaggerated, and unduly cautious, there is a point to it, particularly in times of volatility and uncertainty. As our Foreign Minister says, “words matter.”

The last thing a small, isolated, trading nation, so frequently a price taker, and so seldom a price maker, with virtually no lasting influence on the world stage, should risk in such circumstances is unnecessary alienation, for no apparent gain, of those in a position to influence our future. Yet for reasons which are spurious and vainglorious, that is precisely what we have done.