Very curiously, on Saturday 11 September an event of international significance took place in Auckland that received no mainstream media attention.
The event was, however, well reported in China. See Chinese Navy ships visit New Zealand (YouTube)
It was a visit to Auckland by a Chinese naval frigate and training ship. A check of Television New Zealand 1, 2 and 3, Stuff and NZ Herald newspaper search engines shows no reporting on the event. The Herald business columnist Fran O’Sullivan did a week later make reference to it in her column on a Centre for Strategic Studies study about enhancing New Zealand-United States relationships.
The Voxy web news site carried one report before the arrival of the ships.
A more expansive exception to the paucity of reportage was that of Joel Cayford’s website. This showed about a dozen pictures of many from the Chinese community visiting the ships, including one of himself looking as if he is thoroughly enjoying himself, all in something of a carnival atmosphere.
As reported on the Chinese CNTV website, the Chinese Navy fleet was warmly received by Royal New Zealand Navy Maritime Commander Ross Smith, the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Xu Jianguo, and a huge crowd of overseas Chinese. Some New Zealand naval sailors subsequently sailed off on the Chinese ships to Australia as a part of their training.
This is the second time the Chinese navy has visited New Zealand in the last three years.
In October 2007 two Chinese navy ships visited Wellington and Auckland, including the the missile destroyer Haerbin that fired 21 gun salutes.
At the same time, the New Zealand frigate Te Kaha visited Shanghai and then exercised with a Chinese naval ship. Its captain, Commander Andy Grant was asked then whether he thought Kiwis were aware of the extent of the military relationship between the two countries. His reply was:
“New Zealanders in general are not aware of what their military forces are doing. It’s not a big part of the New Zealand psyche.” He added that “We get a lot of delegations from the Chinese armed forces coming to New Zealand, but I don’t think that’s generally well-known.”
This lack of knowledge could also be to do with low-key treatments or relative media black-outs about such contacts, such as happened in Auckland.
A major concern this blogger has is that these visits involve paradigmatic, behind-scenes policy shifts that have huge implications, but there are no public conversations about them – their coherence, possible effects and desirability.
How consistent are they with respect to other existing policies, or potentially desirable policies?
How do they fit with the nuclear-free, peacemaking identity New Zealand is developing and can most usefully offer to an uncertain, rapidly changing world?
What kinds of scenarios are these decisions opening up up now and down the track?
Considerable potential dangers lurk in this seemingly ad hoc policy drift. There is potential for New Zealand to find itself foreclosing on some rather better options.
Complications are emerging as some now asking, if Chinese naval ships are acceptable, why not also United States ones?
As Fran O’Sullivan writes, no US warship has visited since the mid-1980s. Since then, they have mostly had the nuclear-weapons removed that New Zealanders had objected to. She adds how the United States is taking note of the growing NZ-Chinese relationships, and a discrepancy is seen in this when
… despite the near normalisation of bilateral ties after a decade of painstaking relationship-building, New Zealand is more likely to play host to visiting Chinese warships – as Auckland did last weekend – than to American Navy ships.
There has in fact been some very low-key naval rapprochement with the United States. The frigate Te Kaha mentioned above as visiting Shanghai and exercising with the Chinese navy three years ago just last June also visited Seattle in the United States, before going on to exercise with a United States naval ship along with two Japanese frigates off Japan.
It is worth quoting a few details from the Stuff website report of this event. Note the crafted low-key structure of the contact:
A quarter of a century since the Anzus bust-up over New Zealand’s ban on nuclear armed or powered warships, Te Kaha and the navy tanker Endeavour sailed into the port without fanfare on Sunday, apparently to avoid drawing attention to the significance of the latest event in the slow thaw in US and New Zealand defence relations.
The Defence Force declined a request to send a photo of the ships arriving in port or to speak to Te Kaha’s captain, Commander Matt Williams.
The ships are not being accorded full military-diplomatic courtesies – they have had to tie up at civilian docks rather than being invited into the US navy base at Seattle.
But a brief exercise en route was another small step towards restoration of long-severed ties, with Te Kaha taking part in naval manoeuvres with a US destroyer and two Japanese frigates off Japan.
So once again it is worth asking, should New Zealand welcome United States as well as Chinese naval vessels? What might be the implications? What scenarios could they involve over time?
It is highly likely that at times tensions will rise between the two major international rivals. So there is one scenario in particular that needs careful attention. That is one which could arise, say, after ships from both navies had got into the way of coming here regularly … at some point there could be a build-up, or a sudden flare-up of tensions between the United States and China. Nuclear weapons could then be very quickly redeployed onto ships.
New Zealanders could then find their waters and ports becoming sites of major-power confrontations, including overt conflict – possibly even nuclear.
New Zealand villagers as citizens and taxpayers employ politicians and public officials in the expectation that they are competent to make decisions and deploy resources to enhance their security and well-being rather than place them in jeopardy.
The present pattern of behind-the-scenes decision-making does not fit this bill.
Decision-makers should not be able to keep on with behind-the-scenes decision-making that can expose citizens to unnecessary danger.
They need to prioritize policies that position their country to help reduce these tensions rather open itself to being haplessly drawn into them if/as they build up.
The Auckland University politics lecturer Jian Yang represents one of the few public voices articulating an approach that could enable the kind of dilemma above to be averted. As noted previously, he has advocated New Zealand’s potential value as a neutral peacebroker between the United States and China. He has reiterated this in the context of the New Zealand Defence Review currently being put together.
Fran O’Sullivan also made significant mention of this option, saying “…New Zealand can play a strong interlocutor role in supporting moves to cement a stronger relationship between the US and China within the Asia-Pacific region.”
While Fran seems to think that this can be done while also accepting both US and Chinese naval ships, she does not seem to have reckoned with a potential conflict scenario.
Making the peace-broking option central to New Zealand policy rather than an acceptance of potential rival warships would open up much more felicitous possibilities or scenarios.
For instance, New Zealand could propose that its territorial waters be recognized as a neutral zone of peace and a no-go zone for nuclear-weapons powers.
If all nuclear powers agreed to this, none would have anything to lose, while all would be able to benefit from services to help enhance good relations and reduce tensions or preempt physical conflict; or if conflict did break out, services to help reduce its scope and settle it sooner rather than later.
Of course no policy approach can be absolutely guaranteed to work no matter what circumstances arise or what others may do in them. However, it very much behooves policy-makers to set up frameworks that can help avert, or deal more effectively with potential problems rather than less. By contrast, the present approach looks more likely to actually attract them.
Have you seen the issues described in this blog raised anywhere else? Do you agree, or disagree, that it is relevant and important to consider them before policy decisions are made about naval ship visits from nations with nuclear weapons?
If you have read this Blog and have any questions, doubts and challenges, you are welcome to directly email the Antipodean Blogger who will be very happy to engage further.