Should New Zealand act as a buffer nation between the United States and China?
Much has been said and debated in recent literature concerning Australia’s role in regional South Pacific security. As a regional hegemon, Australia is seen by the United States (US) as a valuable ally in checking the perceived spread of Chinese influence and presence in the region. One may well ask – where does New Zealand (NZ) fit in in regards to China’s activities in the Asia-Pacific and the ensuing tensions with the US? To a lesser extent than Australia, NZ is seen by analysts as a valuable partner in South Pacific strategic concerns. The NZ Foreign Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister), Winston Peters, recently argued that “a renewed foreign policy focus on the Pacific is necessary because the region has ‘become an increasingly contested strategic space’ and an area of ‘strategic anxiety’ for Australia and New Zealand” (Baker 2018). Certainly NZ historically has close ties, both strategically and militarily, with Australia (Gyngell 2018). NZ, however, has a specific focus on the Asia-Pacific region whereas Australia has a wider geographical range of concerns (Gyngell 2018). With an increasing Chinese presence in the South Pacific, given the US’ concerns over China’s recent activities in the Asia-Pacific, should NZ be an intermediary state in discourse between the two major powers?
Australia is sometimes viewed by the South Pacific nations as a benevolent but overbearing and aggressive ally (Dobell 2018). However, NZ is seen as a more benign ally (Dobell 2018). It is this image that could see NZ acting in a buffer role to ease diplomatic negotiations between the US and China. Despite a cooling off of relations between NZ and the US, stemming from NZ’s decision in the 1980s to not allow US nuclear powered ships to berth in NZ, the two nations still remain close. At the same time NZ has strong diplomatic ties with China with the latter nation investing heavily in NZ (Brady 2017). China has made significant financial donations to NZ political parties whilst NZ based Chinese cultural groups, such as the NZ Chinese History and Culture Association, are well established (Brady 2017). According to Brady the NZ government has courted China since the commencement of diplomatic relations between the two nations in 1972 (2017). This long relationship has developed into an intricate web of interaction between China and NZ which has been more harmonious than the relationship between China and the US. The expanding influence and presence of China in NZ could cause both the ‘Five Eyes’ member nations (US, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom) to be wary of NZ, despite it being a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network. However, this could also be an advantage for the US as they may see NZ as a ‘foot in the door’ opportunity to enter into regional security discourse with China. China’s links to NZ therefore could be turned into an advantage. NZ, consequently, could be viewed by both nations as the conduit in which China and the US can enter into productive dialogue.
There is the issue of the size of NZ and therefore its leverage and bargaining power. However, given the close relationship between China and NZ, the US may seek to use NZ to expedite agreement on regional security issues between itself and China. With Trump as President, relations have cooled between China and the US. With NZ on friendlier terms with China it could be used by the US as an intermediary on regional security issues. Both China and the US seek the same goal – legitimacy for their actions. China wants to be seen as a responsible and benevolent power. This has resulted in a greater presence in world affairs. As an extension of that goal, both nations seek support from other states. China and the US, therefore, would seek approval from regional South Pacific nations, regardless of their size and influence. Both powers therefore are keen to be seen as being proactive on issues such as regional security. Both China and the US therefore want to be seen as providers of regional security rather than the cause of regional insecurity. Additionally, with Trump’s proposed isolationist stance for the US, allied nations, such as Australia and NZ, will be expected to put more effort into contributing to regional security. NZ has already publicly declared its own regional security goals. According to a NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (NZMFAT) press release NZ is heavily involved with, and committed to, South Pacific regional security including membership of groups such as the Pacific Islands Forum (2018). Additionally, NZ is involved with the ASEAN Regional Forum “which fosters constructive dialogue on political and security issues and build cooperative ties in the region”. (NZMFAT 2018) With this commitment in mind, NZ could help foster improved regional security cooperation between the key players such as Australia, China and the US. NZ is in a unique position in that it has no real diplomatic issues with the three aforementioned states therefore it is ideally suited to acting as a mediator in regards to South Pacific regional security.
Other nations, such as Canada, are also aware of the strong links between China and NZ. A Canadian intelligence report stated that China is heavily involved in NZ society including business and politics (Roy 2018). NZ “has been influenced at every level of society by the Chinese government” (Roy 2018). Additionally, NZ has assets such as land and petroleum which are attractive to China (Roy 2018). Whilst these assets are not unique to NZ and China can obtain these supplies elsewhere, NZ could use this Chinese investment to coerce China into adopting a more cooperative role with allied nations such as Australia and the US in regards to regional security. Certainly NZ would never risk its economic future with China by adopting a ‘hard’ coercive style. However a ‘soft’ coercive style could provide China with an alternative viewpoint concerning South Pacific regional security and at least give China cause to consider how it might cooperate with other nations involved in regional security. The NZ government itself has acknowledged the ongoing relationship between itself and China. According to a government press release, NZ Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters recently visited China to discuss the China-NZ bilateral relationship (NZMFAT 2018). With China courting the South Pacific island nations with financial assistance and infrastructure projects, now may be the time for NZ to capitalise on its close relationship with China and the US and assert itself as a key player in South Pacific regional security. NZ’s comparatively calming influence could see the small nation taming both the eagle and the dragon.
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