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New Zealand relations with US & China: Ally, Wiggler, or Constructive Broker?

Image: Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto & Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, Aug 2012.
Panetta said under the Japan-US Security Treaty, US would support Japan against China if conflict broke out over the Daiyo Islands.

The Antipodean Villager writes:

A major benefit of United States’ Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s visit to New Zealand has been a recognition at all levels that this country must maintain good relationships with the United States and China.

This consensus was clearly reflected in the words of an aptly titled the Dominion Post editorial, “Keeping both sides happy” (27 September, 2012).

It concluded, yes, New Zealand’s friendship with the United States remains important, but “we have more than one friend, and must guard against being put in a position where we might have to choose between them.”

However, ways of doing this, or principles on which it might be done effectively, with the significant exception of Tim Watkin, have yet to be clarified by anyone. See Tim Watkin’s excellent blogs, “New Zealand’s new Pacific role as the US moves in” (9 January 2012), and “We got the power, so now what” (24 September 2012).

NZ-US military rapprochement

Mr Panetta’s immediate agenda was to add momentum to the resumption of military collaboration between New Zealand and the United States that has been a hall-mark of the John Key-led National government.

The United States had terminated this collaboration by suspending New Zealand from the Anzus treaty in 1985 after New Zealand adopted its nuclear-free policy.

Agreement to resume such collaboration was expressed in the Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012

These agreements enabled New Zealand naval ships to participate in a big, recent Rimpac exercise with United States and 20 other navies for the first time in 28 years.

Mr Panetta announced the New Zealand navy would again be welcome to United States ports and to use naval docking facilities. United States marines are also to train, and develop interoperability with, New Zealand military personnel, as is done with several nations in Asia and in Australia (where some 2,500 marines are to be stationed by 2017).

He also expressed a willingness to revive Anzus, should New Zealand also want this.

US Pivot/Rebalancing strategy for an ascendant China

Mr Panetta’s agenda was widely understood to be about garnering regional support in relation to an ascendant China.

Professor Robert Ayson, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University sees this military rapprochement as part of the United States intensification of its military and trading presence in the Asia-Pacific region that it calls its Asia-Pacific “pivot” or “rebalancing” strategy

Inevitably China, seen by the United States as its major regional and global rival, is watching this development very warily.

Is NZ setting itself up for invidious choices?

Writing in the Dominion-Post just before the visit, Robert Ayson, highlighted a potential looming problem. He alluded to a scenario “in 10 or 15 years’ time when US-China strategic competition is more heated…” In such a situation

the steps New Zealand is taking today may leave us in a more challenging position. Each of these minor steps is a test about how clearly we are thinking about our own long-term interests. (Co-operation-with-US-a-challenging-strategy, 25 September 2012)

Could NZ do better than “wiggle”?

He expressed concern about New Zealand reducing it’s room to move between the two nations, which he refers to as “wiggle room.”

A Christchurch Press editorial added a more positive, if also more challenging element highlighting:

New Zealand’s interest in keeping the US-China relationship peaceful and productive. War or aggressive stand-off between the two big powers would threaten our prosperity and continued viability as a nation (Editorial: A-delicate-balance, 25 September, 2012).

However, the editorial lacked any suggestions about how New Zealand might do anything, or position itself to help keep the US-China relationship peaceful and productive.

East & South China Seas disputes – right now

Some serious thinking would be very useful right now about how New Zealand might begin to act.

Just before arriving in New Zealand Mr Panetta made a highly disconcerting statement in China that should help to focus New Zealand minds.

A furious dispute is raging right now between China and Japan about claims to what China calls the Diaoyu, and Japan the Senkaku, Islands. While advocating peaceful resolution of the issue, Mr Panetta added that if conflict broke out, the United States would support Japan under the Japan-US Security Treaty (Panetta tells China that Senkakus under Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, September 22, 2012).

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia in the South China Sea also have territorial disputes with China, as has India to the north.

Gap for regional peace-broker – Ramesh Thakur

Something seriously lacking in the Asia-Pacific region is an independent and trusted broker who could converse with disputants and be readily available to work with them to help reduce tensions and resolve differences.

In this respect, I would like to round off by again drawing attention to a perceptive academic with an Indian background (see earlier blog). Over 20 years ago, Ramesh Thakur, as the then 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 from the regional faultlines 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.

I commend his words to contemporary decision-makers, media commentators and academics.

NZ “uniquely-placed” to mediate growing US-China rivalries – Murray McCully

It is worth recalling that New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully has himself floated the idea of New Zealand helping to mediate the growing rivalries between its two friends, the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region (on Radio New Zealand Morning Report 2-4-12).

Support from the other political parties to explore this option should have been forthcoming at the time, but the wisdom of doing so may become harder to ignore or postpone as various problems involving invidious situations and choices unfold.


1 Comment

  1. […] As happened when New Zealand went nuclear-free, the military itself could emphasize the provision of peace-keeping, peace-building and disaster relief, especially through the United Nations.
    Let’s also make a new "Wellington Declaration": one that is signed with both the United States and China as well as other interested regional states that declares the intention to make this antipodean capital city a “Village of Diplomatic Conversations” about how to achieve a much more peaceful, secure and bright future for all in our region, and for others beyond it.
    (More details on my blog: New Zealand relations with US & China: Ally, Wiggler, or Constructive Broker? ) […]

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