Terence O'Brien - NZ, Australia and China: A False Choice?

By Terence O'Brien


This speech was given at Diplosphere's panel discussion on NZ, Australia and China: A False Choice? on 22 June, at Parliament.


The nature of NZ’s relationship with Beijing has moved well beyond its path breaking years. Coming to terms with China’s growing momentum represents an acute ongoing challenge. Foreign Minister Mahuta advocates, in her own words, a respectful, consistent and predictable NZ engagement while avoiding use of the loud hailer. Her comments are scrutinised meticulously by media and beyond. Her starting point is the Waiting Treaty as the touchstone for an independent NZ foreign policy - in other words she reaffirms the simple proposition, ‘all foreign policy begins at home’.

China is an intensely realist power. Sentimentality plays no part in its international relations. Beijing believes it is entitled to respect from other governments for its undeniable accomplishments and importance in the world of today and tomorrow. Many countries, NZ included, vitally depend upon China for prosperity. Beijing’s forceful actions with respect to the Uyghurs and towards Hong Kong however serve to deny it that respect inside important sections of the global community. The precept that 'all foreign policy begins at home' applies directly to China.

NZ ’s (and Australia’s) choices will clearly be influenced by America’s strategic response to China’s inexorable momentum. President Biden seeks to embellish American leadership based around its ideals and values. But there is a legacy which tarnishes that goal. The precept that 'foreign policy begins at home' applies to the US too. Evidence of systemic racial injustice, toxic politics and deluded gun laws presently demean US leadership. US presidents from Eisenhower onwards, have asserted that America is great because America is good.

Kurt Campbell, US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific


The view that China poses an existential threat to the US is shared amongst the Washington national security community. President Biden’s senior adviser on Asian affairs, Kurt Campbell, asserted recently that the period of US engagement with China is now over. On transcendental issues like climate change, COVID and nuclear proliferation Campbell envisaged the two governments would interact in international institutions like the UN. But in devising robust rules for the modern era in trade, space, science, advanced technology, artificial intelligence and cyber and the like, US engagement would not, Campbell inferred, include China.

Behind the Campbell thesis serious questions loom for the future relevance of established institutions like the UN, WTO etc. and consequently for the choices that NZ makes. An assortment of choices rather than one single all embracing decision about where definitively to line up may become the reality, and pose ever greater burdens for small country diplomacy in a more hybrid world where different countries choose to keep different company on different issues.

Family photo of G7 leaders at Carbis Bay, Cornwall


At the most recent G7 and NATO summits President Biden sought to rally support for his China policy. It is not clear yet how far he succeeded. The language of the two profuse communiques almost certainly disguises differing shades of opinion. Certain key participants are unlikely for example, to share the American view that China poses a threat to their very existence. The G7 communique contains no mention of Asia as such. Instead it subscribes to the new strategic definition of an Indo-Pacific region. In terms of NZ fashioning choices about China such language deflects away from one important fact. Over the past 30 years, East Asian neighbours have for the most part privately but consistently counselled Washington against a policy of containment of China. Comparing notes in Asian capitals remains therefore indispensable for NZ as it ponders choices. As 2021 Chair of APEC NZ has an opportunity to refocus the narrative around the concept of Asia-Pacific, which defines its priority interests more clearly.

Whilst assessing choice NZ must look to consistency. The charge sheet against China - disregard for international law and severe humans rights violations - also characterises a number of Middle Eastern governments that enjoy political, military and diplomatic protection from powerful outsiders. Amongst the powerful nations China does not have monopoly of disregard for international law. Unacceptable Chinese actions undeniably warrant censure but the drum beat about China’s threat reverberates now to a degree that comes close to demonisation of China as malevolent about everything. Within the US such vilification is spilling into wider anti Asian scaremongering.

Terence O'Brien

International circumstances today are quite different but overtones of 20th century Cold War demonisation are clearly evident. Historians now agree that Cold War tensions were driven by exaggerated rhetoric about capabilities and intent, so as to justify stupendous military budgets and forward deployments. Absolute US military superiority as a result endures. The South China Sea (SCS) is a source of special tension involving too competing regional sovereignty claims. China retains interest in freedom of commercial navigation given its vital reliance on seaborne trade, but opposes free military navigation in its maritime approaches. The US strongly asserts that right. The choice here for NZ and for others, is a delicate one.



Terence O’Brien is a former New Zealand diplomat and Senior Fellow & Founding Director, at VUW Centre for Strategic Studies.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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