A seismic shift is under way in NZ’s geopolitical relationships. Led by Foreign Minister Winston Peters, the Coalition government has eased away from the previous National government’s ready accommodation with China and the presumption that NZ could easily balance United States and China relations to a more hard-nosed approach. Several elements have contributed.
First, a powerful pro-Beijing faction in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has lost influence.
Second, the present government is more attuned to current geopolitical shifts in NZ’s immediate north-west. Now there is a new, sharper understanding of the implications of a move by China into contacts with NZ’s immediate Pacific environment such as the Cook Islands.
This may be the “red flag” which defines future policy. It underscores Peters’ latest request for a boost in NZ’s overseas development assistance for what he terms “NZ’s neighbourhood”.
Many New Zealanders who cherish their country’s “independent” foreign policy have little idea of how active China has been in spreading its influence into this region. Even within the Labour and Green parliamentary elements of the government, where anti-Trump feeling is dominant, the realignment of NZ towards the stance of its long-time closest partners may not yet be fully understood.
The government’s recent defence policy statements signalled the shift: a recognition that China, as it spreads its influence from beyond the South China Seas into the south west Pacific, poses a fresh challenge.
There is a new appreciation in Wellington that NZ’s defence interests are more than ever identified with those of Australia and US. The government’s investment in Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrollers to replace the aged Orions, reflects the shift, along with the ramping-up of NZ-US military activities, particularly including US Marine Corps tactical exercises across the South Island.
Almost certainly, the Defence Minister Ron Mark will be building the case for another big defence investment decision on replacement of the RNZAF’s ancient Hercules.
Then, the current government appears much more concerned at the intrusion into NZ by China across a broad spectrum not just of the economy, but also cultural, scientific and academic affairs.
NZ has heard little of the active political debate being played out in Australia over China’s disruptive role in regional security, its industrial-scale use of cyber and human intelligence to steal intellectual property and the active promotion of front organisations and political donations to ‘influence’ local politics. But it is clear Winston Peters has been instrumental in the policy revision in Wellington, moving NZ in its attitude to Beijing back towards that of its closest partners.
What may surprise many of those unfamiliar with how Peters operates are the lines of communication he enjoys to high levels in the administrations in both Washington and Canberra. It is expected the forthcoming APEC meetings in Port Moresby (and possibly a visit to Washington in December) will offer Peters the opportunity to demonstrate the impact of his diplomacy to those who have been indifferent to the evolution in recent months of NZ policy.
The intelligence community is relieved by the government’s attitude. Before the general election, the National government seemed unwilling to accept or acknowledge the extent of Chinese penetration despite the growing indications of influence in NZ Chinese media and the apparent interventions of Chinese agents in NZ academic circles.
Increasing attention is also being paid to China’s burgeoning interest in the Antarctic in terms of its strategic and economic prospects.