Thinking about the threat from Beijing and bringing Cabinet on side may be the explanation, if Jacinda seems distracted

If PM Jacinda Ardern looks more distracted and concerned these days she has good reason.  Housing, child poverty, economic recovery and Covid 19 might be sufficient, but there’s a foreign policy challenge looming: China.

Until very recently, New Zealand’s friends and allies, principally Australia and the US but also Singapore, Japan and South Korea, had reason to believe this country would continue its fence-sitting role with Beijing despite ominous developments in the People’s Republic.

The NZ business community, notably companies with extensive China links such as Fonterra, have hoped this Switzerland-type attitude might continue: you trade with both the good and the bad and you don’t make judgments. You let foreign governments run their own domestic affairs.

This is precisely the line from NZ that China and Russia gladly accept.  Never mind the internal repression, the quashing of democracy, the territorial land and seas grabs – let’s keep business rolling.

Times have changed and now NZ is on the cusp.  China is front and centre for the Cabinet.

It’s no wonder PM Ardern has taken care of the “big four” of our external relations: Australia, China, the UK and the US.

Across the western world governments have taken a new stance with both Moscow and Beijing. Only this week the latest British defence review cited Russia as the UK’s biggest challenge.

Last week the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, had a bruising round with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage.  At the first high-profile, in-person meeting between China and  the US since President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Blinken gave a harsh opening statement in which he brought up the USA’s deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies.

Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi responded with a 17-minute retort in which he made clear his contempt for the US.  American observers say the result was possibly the most contentious start to superpower relations since the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in 1961.

Analysts see a haunting parallel evolving in Asia with Europe, where Nazi Germany bullied its neighbours into submission then imposed harsh systems of control.  For example, last month China announced that its ships could open fire on anyone they believed was transgressing China’s new territories in the South China Seas. It continues to bully Taiwan and has shut down what was left of democratic government in the former “two systems” Hong Kong.

North Korea has resumed missile testing intended to unnerve the neighbours.

President Biden has five objectives.  The first four are to resolve the Covid crisis, restore the economy, unify the US and fourth, reinvigorate America’s alliances.

The administration is making this fourth one a priority. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited two key allies in Asia, South Korea and Japan and Biden convened a virtual meeting of the so-called Quad with Australia, Japan and India.

Confidence in the United States has surged among American allies since Biden’s election. The Pew Research Centre reported in January that large majorities in Germany (79%), France (72%) and the UK (65%) say they have confidence in Biden to do the right thing in world affairs — a dramatic change from the low ratings Donald Trump received.

Biden’s fifth objective is to reorient defence spending away from legacy systems.  Defence analysts believe the US has to invest in offensive cyber capabilities, smaller platforms, drone and stealth technology and artificial intelligence.

One reason is a concern in the Pentagon that China might beat the US in a conventional war.  Allied with this is safeguarding the US technological edge.

In recent days there has been intensive focus on the China threat among government departments in Wellington involved in foreign policy – MFAT, Ministry of Defence, NZ Defence and the intelligence agencies.

Ministers have been exposed to the highest-level intelligence summaries of Chinese intentions and are  reaching a point where they must decide to join friends and allies, adopting a collective approach to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour and be ready to accept an economic hit.

In other words, unity in strength.

Some analysts see a re-invention of the cold war. Biden has made it clear to China that he will compete but not confront as long as China plays by the world’s rules-based system.   With Russia he has been even more ferocious, notably after the release of a declassified version of a major intelligence brief which spelled out how Russia and its friends – notably Iran – did their best to intervene in the US presidential election, using soft-power techniques to infiltrate social media, so distrust of the voting systems and fire-up activists.

NZ will not return to Anzus, even though defence relations are now at a high level of confidence on both sides.  Expectations are high, though, in Canberra and Washington DC, that the governing party of M J Savage and UN-founding partner Peter Fraser, will defend the principles of their founders.

Ardern is certainly aboard and her challenge is to take her Cabinet with her. And this explains why she might seem distracted:  this is the sternest test her government has had to confront.

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