While New Zealand’s trade-focused Prime Minister John Key was at a Chinese-hosted Bo’ai trade forum this week, a challenging crisis (potentially nuclear) was, and as I write still is, raging. John Key quickly found himself needing in-depth knowledge about more than trade – or about military history.
The crisis has followed on from United States and South Korean forces playing out annual war-games, for the sixtieth year, in striking distance of North Korea. The new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has responded with nuclear threats to South Korea, the United States homeland and its base at Guam. While North Korea is not believed to be fully serious about its threats, it has nuclear weapons and there is concern that events could unexpectedly escalate out of control.
TV3 journalist Patrick Gower asked the Prime Minister a particularly thorny question. He asked whether New Zealand would join in if war broke out with North Korea, given “the United States and Australia would likely join to defend the South?” The Prime Minister replied that “obviously we have got a long and proud history of coming to the support of South Korea. Taken to the extreme, and without [diplomatic] interventions and resolutions to the issues, that is of course possible.” See Key in China heeds NKorea threats
John Key backed away from his military speculation the next day, saying that New Zealand “would review its position” in such circumstances.
While the Prime Minister acknowledged international diplomacy must come first, he seems to reduce New Zealand’s role to that of a by-stander who would, if diplomacy by others failed, send in its military personnel.
John Key is very energetic about trade collaboration. In his speech to the forum in Boao he said “We want to work with our partners here in China, and across the region, to ensure prosperity and well-being for this, and for future, generations.”
So while he he can be very proactive about trade, it would be wonderful if he could bring a similar interest to what New Zealand might offer with respect to diplomacy.
Of course, supporting North Korea in the early 1950s Korean War was its neighbour China. That was when the Cold War began, with China and Russia on one side and the West, including New Zealand, on the other.
While China is currently very annoyed with North Korea, it would be very displeased if United States-led forces, including New Zealand ones, engaged in war on its geo-strategic doorstep. Chinese troops are already massed near the China-Korea border in preparation for any contingencies that may arise.
Such an uncertain, three-cornered confrontation involving three nuclear-armed powers – China, the United States and North Korea, could take any turn at any point.
New Zealand decisonmakers need to get their heads around a radically new situation; namely that a multipolar but economically, ecologically and otherwise interdependent world needs not superpower, Cold War confrontation, but peace-broking and connection-building.
An illustration of this is the way New Zealand itself needs to maintain good diplomatic and trading relations with both the United States and China, notwithstanding that they are large economic, and potentially military, rivals. The United States “Pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region as it moves on from Iraq and Afghanistan end gives an edge to this rivalry that needs special attention to help ensure it does not get out of control. cf Village-connections blog, New Zealand relations with US & China: Ally, Wiggler, or Constructive Broker?
New Zealand’s traditional paradigm of military alignments and war-fighting with its roots in its colonial, Anglo Saxon past does not provide the map that is needed.
Prime Minister Key and his advisers will begin to find a diplomatic map that they can use when they recognize what began to be possible when New Zealand went nuclear free. When the 1984-90 Labour Government refused to accept visits by potentially nuclear-armed United States’ naval ships, New Zealand was suspended from the Anzus (Australia, New Zealand, United States) military alliance.
This put New Zealand in a credible and respected position to engage in a friendly and constructive way with all, including those who disagreed with one another, and to engage in peacemaking diplomacy and promote a nuclear-free world.
There is still nonetheless a strong lobby in New Zealand that wants a return to old military-alignment type paradigms. This lobby may have overly-influenced the Prime Minister and left him blindsided when he has needed a map with productive and viable options on it, such as for the present Korean crisis.
With Helen Clark having been a nuclear-free activist and a part of the 1984-90 Labour government, her own 1999-2008 Labour government had the focus and energy needed to offer the nuclear-free peacemaking diplomacy that helped to break a previous Korean Peninsula impasse in 2007. With the blessing of both the United States and China, she successfully sent her Foreign Minister Winston Peters to North Korea to help restore communication channels between it and the United States.
Peters to discuss dismantling N-plants on first visit by NZ minister to North Korea Tuesday Nov 13, 2007
Now amidst growing concern, diplomacy has again become a priority, with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reporting: “We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese and others to defuse that situation on the peninsula.”
Such diplomatic activity could provide an opportunity for New Zealand to register an interest with both parties in being briefed, if they were agreeable, about how their liaison with each other and with North Korea was progressing, and register a readiness to assist if/as this was seen as helpful.
If China and the United States were agreeable to such an approach New Zealand could find itself in constructive communications loops between them.
John Key’s government looks well positioned to make such an approach. It enjoys unprecedented high level contact with both United States and Chinese governments. His warm welcome by the Chinese President, very soon after he arrived in China, and subsequent meeting with the Chinese Premier, further confirm this.
Against the background of the high-level connections developing with both nations a year ago, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully iindicated how his country is uniquely placed to deal with, and even to help mediate between, the United States and China (On Radio New Zealand Morning Report on Monday 2-4-12).
Making contact with China and the United States about Korea at this point, when they are collaborating over it, could be an opportune way to tune more closely into their perceptions and issues, and begin helping to keep them on the same page in ways that are also in tune with the interests of the wider region, particularly smaller nations like New Zealand itself.
Why not invite North Korea to establish a permanent ambassadorial presence in Wellington (the North Korean embassy in Jakarta being currently responsible for diplomatic relations with New Zealand)? Then make a point of seeking the official North Korean perspective on the Korean Peninsula crisis, along with South Korean, United States and Chinese perspectives from their embassies. Seek then to build up on-going, back-channel dialogue exploring the issues of difference, and how these might be addressed effectively.
Wellington as the capital of nuclear-free New Zealand could be a particularly suitable venue for discussion also of the denuclearization of North Korea now sought by both the United States and China. Ways of progressing the denuclearization of these and other nuclear powers could also be explored.
With such conversations, Wellington might be able to begin to develop as a regional, “antipodean diplomatic village” for back-channel as well as overt, larger-scale consensus-building to create a new, shared map of how to collaborate to create a sustainable and flourishing, multipolar world.
I very much welcome your comments