Is it just the China choice?

Auckland, New Zealand | Source: Unsplash

Declan Hourd

The rise of China has brought with it a swathe of changes to the foreign policy environment of the Southwest Pacific. The Belt and Road Initiative is a policy scheme that only China could develop, using its economic muscle to bankroll trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure programs across the Global South, thus issuing a challenge to the historic American dominance of the region. Furthermore, the contours of the Chinese domestic economy and its titanic population make it the world’s most desirable market to penetrate.

For both Australia and New Zealand, China has been a common source of economic growth as a destination for its high-quality agricultural products. However, the geopolitics surrounding China’s rise has soured, ushering in the current climate of great power competition which has pitted two different political cultures against each other. In this current climate, democracies, particularly Western democracies, have begun to form a loose coalition that aims to repel the more coercive aspects within the authoritarian leanings of the Communist Party of China. This intention is particularly personal from an Australian perspective because of its worsening relationship with Beijing and the economic hardship incurred from coercive tariff measures. The perceived tensions across the trans-Tasman increased when the New Zealand Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor, recommended that Australia show more “respect” and “diplomacy” towards China. These comments have since been rolled back by Wellington.

Continuing from this incident, it was shocking to much of the Western world that New Zealand, often considered as inseparable from Australia, issued subdued statements in diplomatic language that supported Canberra without condemning Beijing on the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing state-sponsored genocide of Uyghurs. Subsequently, opinion pieces accused New Zealand of being a Chinese puppet and pondered rethinking New Zealand’s place within Five Eyes, an important multinational intelligence-sharing organisation.

YDS reporting by Sameera Pillai describes how reliant New Zealand’s economy is on Chinese consumption and concludes this as the main motivation for its conservative and diplomatic approach, which as a consequence, puts Wellington out of step with its allies. While this is true, it is, however, not the whole story. I argue that perceptions of New Zealand are often obscured by its strong friendship with Australia, resulting in international onlookers, and Australians, assuming that New Zealand’s foreign policy concerns, culture, and economy are so aligned with Canberra that they may as well be identical. This assumption is not baseless, because the dyad agrees on many issues and has developed an effective partnership through their strong historical relations.

The perception of drifting foreign policy objectives indicates a lack of context surrounding New Zealand’s role in the region and unrealistic expectations of conformity is cause to increase disunity between Canberra and Wellington. To unpack some of these differences, a clear picture of the economic differences between Australia and New Zealand is required. As for the political arena, this tension is being caused within the context of great power competition. Consequently, analysis emphasises China policy because, as the rising power, Beijing is challenging pre-existing norms across a multitude of policy settings. However, New Zealand also interacts with the United States according to its own interests resulting in periods of distinct policy difference. Interrogating historical examples of divergent policy decisions offers insight into the political pressures that create them, particularly, as they relate to the experiences of today.

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