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Fears China Diaoyu/Japan Senkaku Stand-off could lead to World War 3

Image: A Chinese protest boat wedged in by Japanese patrol boats near the disputed islands. (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Masataka Morita)

Antipodean Village Blogger writes:

The China Diaoyu/Japan Senkaku Islands stand-off, in which the United States backs Japan, is focusing minds around the world.

What the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands and the Japanese the Senaku Islands are claimed by both countries. China has now declared a wide East Asian “air defence zone” that encompasses the islands, and requires all airplanes and ships going through the area notify it. United States bombers have since gone through without notification and United States and Japan have planned for a major joint military exercise in the area.

According to “very credible” senior diplomats and military planners, the situation could easily spiral into a (nuclear) World War 3.  (Hear Radio New Zealand’s Asia correspondent Jalal Anderlini reporting on this. He is the Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times)

He reports that escalation into World War 3 is seen as a real possibility given the mutual ratcheting up of heated rhetoric and the potential for events to spiral out of control, perhaps involving the unintentional destruction of an airplane or a ship (ponder the accompanying photograph). Such dangers are accentuated by the absence of a “hot” telephone connection between Tokyo and Beijing to clear up any misunderstanding.

Current New Zealand response

Certainly a high-stakes game is developing that is immediately dangerous and has potentially profound long-term strategic and economic implications for all.

How could, or should, a small and remote New Zealand usefully respond to this situation? Let’s look at New Zealand’s options, first, in its historical context.

For the first 100 years or so from our formal foundation in 1840 our international option was clear: to follow where Mother England went. Then in 1951the United States replaced Britain when the New Zealand, United States and Australian Alliance (Anzus) was formed.

Australia is going down that alliance path now with its Foreign Minister Julie Bishop criticising the Chinese air zone. The Chinese have responded vigorously that her comments were “irresponsible” and “completely mistaken”.

Her imminent visit to Beijing could prove very interesting, and this may not be the most auspicious background for the conclusion of the free trade agreement being negotiated between Australia and China.

Now with China being New Zealand’s largest trading partner, I doubt that New Zealand would like to unduly upset it. So what might New Zealand do?

Dilemma posed by the rise of China

The business editor of the New Zealand Herald Liam Dann is on to the problem. In his recent article, China v USA – NZ’s dilemma, he describes an important backdrop to this crisis as the economic rise of China. This is accompanied by a shift in the balance of power that the “Chinese understandably want to see recognised by the world.”

Although not mentioned in Liam’s article, the United States in turn is engaged in “Pivoting” its geostrategic and economic focus from the Middle East into the Asia-Pacific region.

So Liam sums up New Zealand’s situation as one in which “China is now our major trading partner, while the US remains a closer cultural and political ally.”

Then, as very few have done to date, he asks exactly what needs to be asked: “We need to start thinking hard about our strategies for the coming decades as China and the US jostle for position in the new world order.”

Resolving the dilemma?

So, what strategies, then, could work, and work well “for the coming decades?”

I would like to draw attention to two events in our more recent history that could point towards some constructive possibilities.

Firstly, we declared our country nuclear-free as a move towards helping to end the threat nuclear weapons posed for the human race. As a result, we were suspended from Anzus. Many showed a high regard for New Zealand’s stance including China and, relatively recently even United States’ President Obama himself at his Nuclear Security Summit in 2010.

Secondly, New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy helped make it an acceptable broker for nuclear-free diplomacy in Asia. In 2007 Winston Peters, as Foreign Minister in the Clark-Peters coalition government liaised between both Pyongyang in North Korea and Washington to help achieve a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis at the time.

Three very practical steps the New Zealand could readily take

So how might small, independent and remote New Zealand build on these well-accepted nuclear-free, peacemaking developments? Precisely because New Zealand is small, independent and remote, I suggest there are perfectly practical steps it could take. These are:

1.    Ask China, Japan and the United States if they would be willing to provide briefings on how they see this dispute. If they agreed to do this, then seek to liaise between them to help develop common ground in the perception of issues and how they might be resolved.
2.    Have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade encourage and facilitate “Wellington Conversations” between relevant embassies about the current crisis. These could also become the basis for wider, constructive on-going conversations about Asia-Pacific issues.
3.    Include relevant academics from Victoria University and elsewhere in such on-going conversations with studies, seminars and conferences. Current studies on China supported by The New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre begin to demonstrate how Victoria University can collaborate with local and international organizations to build international understanding and connections.

Three good reasons for New Zealand to offer to liaise between the disputants

New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, its experience in diplomatic Asia-United States liaison, and its very good communication lines with China, Japan and the United States, could all combine to make it a very suitable candidate to engage in  diplomatic liaison between them now. I see three good reasons for doing so:

  1. The Asia-Pacific region badly needs a permanent, independent and commonly recognized hub for conflict resolution, peace-building and related research.
  2. For a New Zealand campaigning for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, here is an opportunity to demonstrate a serious desire to help make a constructive contribution to world affairs.
  3. This is an opportunity for it to simultaneously strengthen its high-level connections with three of its four top trading partners: China – its largest, the United States – its third largest, and Japan – its fourth largest. (The second is Australia, which should also very much welcome efforts to help defuse this situation in which it is becoming embroiled).

So, how about taking steps like these to help develop Wellington as a “Diplomatic Village”, an enduring regional hub for constructive regional Asia-Pacific diplomacy and problem solving conversations?

What do you think? Would you like New Zealand make this kind of contribution? Your views are most welcome.

For New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s response, which I consider  to have much more to it than is suggested in the headline, see the NZ Herald article: NZ lies low amid China dispute

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