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Neutral communication brokering between Asia-Pacific elephants

“…it’s a matter of connecting the elephants in the room”

– Kenny Ausubel, founder of Bioneers

Graphic: Chris Chapman, facilitator of the Change Exploratory website

The Antipodean Blogger writes:

At last some senior politicians and some in the media are starting to talk about two big, contending elephants impacting on New Zealand. One is the United States, the traditional Anglo-Saxon elephant that a nostalgic, but still influential New Zealand lobby would like to have as a patron, and the other is of course China, the new big cashed-up elephant on whom New Zealand’s economic future depends.

An excellent Radio New Zealand Insight program, China, the US and NZ raised this issue very sharply last Sunday/Monday 12/13 February.

What is now needed is some clear thinking on how the problem could be addressed.

US desire to isolate China from Pacific trading bloc

The Insight program described a crunch situation that is beginning to focus some political minds on the problem. That is a strong mood amongst some influential United States elites to develop a Pacific trade alliance that excludes China. Auckland University professor Jane Kelsey also noted the emergence of this at the APEC meeting in Honolulu last November.

NZ would choose China over the United States!

If confronted with having to choose between the Unites Sates and China New Zealand would, in the emphatic and striking words of trade minister Tim Groser, “go with China.” Australia, dependent on China for huge mineral sales, said it would follow.

Regional rivalry: a structural problem needing a structural solution

This situation is coming to a head in a particular set of circumstances. As well as being economic crisis time almost everywhere, it is in the United States, also pre-election time. Both factors are conducive to bringing anti-Chinese sentiment to the fore in the United States.

However, the rise of China since the 1980s was bound to bring out rivalries with its big United States competitor, as has been happening over a period of decades. It is the potential for a need to choose between primary trading partners that has made New Zealand think about its choices as never before.

The rise of China over the last few decades has brought new edges to a number of old rivalries and to unresolved issues around its very extensive, and often disputed, borders. These rivals include India, with which war broke out in 1962 and again looms on the horizon. Both nations, of course, have nuclear weapons. Other Asian regional powers such as South Vietnam and the Philippines also contend with China and with one another over parts of the resource-rich, geostrategically-rich  South China Seas.

Thickening the plot for these narratives of potential conflict is the fact that these regional powers, along with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Australia, are encouraging the United States (and some are also encouraging India) into the region to act as a counter-weight against China.

The European solution: neutral channels of communication

It is worth recalling the role of four countries in Europe in helping for around four decades to prevent World War 3 by being able, and willing as neutral countries, to facilitate communication between potential nuclear antagonists. These were Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Finland, and each provides its own distinctive template as to how neutrality might be adapted to national situations, temperaments and possibilities. One example, Switzerland, has been neutral for almost 500 years, and has learned to do quite well over that period as a peaceful haven when others threatened and fought with one another.

At least on the face of it, European inter-state tensions have been diminished since the end of the Cold War in 1989. Nonetheless, some very uncomfortable tensions persist between NATO alliance members and Russia, and it is unclear how much the current economic crisis will leave intact that uniting bulwark against interstate rivalries, the European Union.

An Asia-Pacific region without neutral peace-brokers

As noted above, Asia-Pacific interstate relations look comparatively far less settled. But there is no country permanently available to help broker problem-solving communication and conflict resolution.

New Zealand, a small, geographically-remote, antipodean friend to all and enemy to none, is ideally situated to develop skills and amenities to help fill this increasingly-yawning regional gap.

New Zealand also needs a new, post-colonial, genuinely nonaligned and constructive identity compatible with its nuclear-free policy. What this might begin to look like is sketched in the email reproduced below.

Time to Befriend the Asian Tigers, The Dominion, 30 June 1992

Just before doing so, it is worth again quoting one far-sighted Indian scholar who, as a New Zealand academic 20 years ago, saw the problems and possibilities discussed here. He is Ramesh Thakur, who as Director of Asian Studies, Otago University, said:

“To the extent that there is great cultural-cum-demographic diversity in Asia and New Zealanders are not Asians, we can be equidistant form the regional falutlines and can help in the safer management of these faultlines.”


“The very fact of New Zealand being an anglophile outpost in Asia-Pacific makes it possible to search for strategies of niche diplomacy…. as interlocutors between Asia-Pacific and the West.”

Email to Radio New Zealand about the Insight program on NZ, China and the US

The Insight program opening up the problem was played on Chris Laidlaw’s Sunday program on radio New Zealand, in response to which the following email was sent. Chris managed to read only the first three paragraphs before the program ended, so the full email is reproduced below.

Hi Chris

It was quite exciting to hear, at the opening of your Insight programme, about New Zealand having to move on from being tied to Anglo-Saxon apron strings.

Then there was even some recognition, at last, of a key problem that New Zealand needs to address in the Asia-Pacific region. Namely, that it needs to relate well to large powers that do not always relate well to one another.

What I now await is recognition of how, to thrive in this environment, New Zealand has to become a neutral broker between the larger regional powers. That is, between regional powers through from the United States to China, to India, and to Indonesia as well as, for that matter, Australia itself.

Simultaneously at local levels, it would pay social and economic dividends for this country to focus on developing excellent intercultural communications, including between Asians and other New Zealanders. Only then will this country acquire the connections and knowledge needed to sell products that will bring in top-dollar (or yuan).

For New Zealand to have a successful future in international relations and trade, our politicians and academics need to lift their game to define the wider diplomatic and social settings needed to underpin this.

That is about the only way to move seriously up from being a price-taker selling bulk produce to the bottom of Asian markets.

Otherwise our economic and diplomatic future, to me, does not look very promising.

I’d be very interested in any comments agreeing or disagreeing or suggestions – either in the box below or email

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