Yan Yan/Xinhua via AP
Given a background of recent militaristic posturing from Chinese President Xi Jinping, New Zealand cannot afford to stand aside from events in the Asia-Pacific region, writes Bruce Kohn.
OPINION: Facing up to the West’s challenges in dealing with China’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea and recent threatening gestures toward Taiwan will be among one of the early requirements of the new administration in the Beehive.
The almost total absence of any political debate during the election campaign of New Zealand foreign policies as they relate to China, Asia in general and the US stood out in complete contrast to the dominance of party stances on Covid-19 and the economy.
Yet in the final week of election campaigning, China’s President Xi Jinping told his marines when visiting naval facilities in Guangdong that they should “focus all your minds and energy on preparing for war and maintain a high level of alert”.
That not even this sign of Beijing’s militaristic posturing could spark New Zealand’s political leaders into open exchanges of views on their favoured course of approach to growing tensions in north-east Asia spoke volumes about New Zealand’s political preoccupation with domestic considerations.
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Almost banal exchanges about the need for the country to maintain a diplomatic balance between its approach to China on human rights issues, and the need to retain the trade flows that have seen the “middle kingdom” become New Zealand’s largest export market, ignored the growing tensions in the region.
Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia all have a vital stake in China’s decade-long buildup of military bases in the China Sea, while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan regard the assertiveness of Chinese actions and words with considerable nervousness. Trade penalties imposed by Beijing on Australia for what it regards as unfriendly attitudes and action underpin Canberra’s unease at the direction of Chinese power projection.
This is not a situation from which New Zealand can stand aside. The US, under whoever holds the presidency post-election day there, will be required in its own interests, and pressed by its allies in east-Asia, to respond to Chinese positioning.
That signs emerged in Europe in these past weeks of German and French co-operation to develop closer security ties in Southeast Asia and the Pacific further underscored an approaching period of intense discussion among Western countries on their security response to China’s sabre-rattling.
New Zealand maintains a commercial office in Taiwan. Trade between the two is a valuable component of our export income. While de facto status of this office as only commercial in nature signifies recognition of Beijing’s “one China” policy, it has been predicated on the basis that, much like Hong Kong, Beijing would in practice follow an effective “one China; two governance systems” policy.
Beijing’s effective assumption of paramountcy over the conduct of Hong Kong’s political management and legal system demonstrated the shifting stands on which that basis stands.
Chinese foreign policy officials in decades past emphasised that the one China policy included the view that it would acquire Taiwan only “when the time was right” and, “100 years was only a blink of an eyelid” in terms of Chinese history as to when the time might be right.
But President Xi’s tone when addressing his armed forces suggests to many that turmoil in US politics may be regarded as signalling to Beijing that the time has arrived.
The stationing of extra Chinese forces armed with the most modern of Chinese missile weaponry on the mainland opposite Taiwan has only increased nervousness about Chinese intentions toward Taiwan.
That the US will continue to challenge China’s claim to hegemony over much of the South China Sea is expected as a signal to its friends in East Asia that they have its backing in protesting against China’s claims.
The increasing gestures of Chinese assertiveness toward Taiwan, however, lift stakes significantly, with US commitments in place covering protection of the island republic.
New Zealand is unlikely to avoid diplomatic pressure to link with Asian friends, European nations and the US in making clear there are bottom lines to the pressure China is placing on Taiwan and other east Asian countries.
This pressure may force foreign policy debate on our politicians for the exchange of views that were largely avoided during the election campaign, the absence of which gave voters little chance to give a view of policies that may or may not be adopted.
Neither Labour nor National can claim on strong grounds they have a mandate from voters for the position they take.
Bruce Kohn is a former Asian correspondent of the New Zealand Press Association.