Bryce Edwards: The problem of “blindly following” the US against China

Bryce Edwards: The problem of “blindly following” the US against China

New Zealand may have finally jumped off its foreign policy tightrope act between China and the US. Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern effectively chose sides, leaping into the arms of the US, at the expense of the country’s crucial relationship with China.

That’s the growing consensus amongst observers of New Zealand’s foreign policy, following Ardern’s visit to the White House and her government’s strong stance against China’s increased diplomatic presence in the Pacific region.

Blindly following traditional allies

Observers are now questioning whether Ardern’s obsequence to American power will badly damage New Zealand’s national interests, and there is criticism that the Government is “blindly following” the US against the interests of both New Zealand and the Pacific.

There is no doubt that China believes Ardern is now siding with Washington over Beijing. China’s Ambassador to Wellington, Wang Xiaolong, has written a letter to Ardern accusing the Government of “blindly following others”, and suggesting she is making a big mistake in her attempts to reposition the country as a stronger diplomatic and military ally of the United States.

Former prime minister Helen Clark has also hit out using similar language, in a subtle yet sharp critique of how the country’s foreign policy is shifting under Ardern. Responding to Ardern’s closer ties with Washington, Clark says: “The key issue in maintaining the substance and perception of NZ foreign policy will be to ensure that NZ is making its own decisions based on its own values and interests and not blindly following others”.

Will Ardern integrate New Zealand into a more global NATO?

Clark’s comments were reported this week by political journalist Richard Harman. He also reports that Ardern is now planning to attend the next NATO summit in Madrid, which would be a strong provocation to China.

At a time when NATO appears to be expanding and is increasing a US-led global alliance against China and Russia, New Zealand’s increased involvement with this military alliance would be a further sign that Ardern has abandoned any vestiges of neutrality in favour of an alliance against China.

In his report Harman suggests that rather than just attending the summit to discuss the issue of Ukraine, Ardern could end up endorsing the expansion of NATO, or some version of it, into the Pacific region, in order to stave off China. As Harman writes, “If Ardern does do that, then New Zealand’s ‘independent’ foreign policy is likely to be tested, as it has not been since 1985.”

Criticisms of NZ siding with the US over China

This week the New Zealand Herald published an editorial that also bemoaned that “Ardern signed up to a joint statement that nailed New Zealand’s colours squarely to the US mast on security and strategic concerns.” The newspaper warned this shift was not necessarily in the interests of New Zealand or stability in the Pacific: “there is still value in the country treading a more careful, independent path on China than Australia does. New Zealand has been able to maintain a good relationship with Beijing and it is best to keep up a constructive dialogue”.

Leftwing political commentator Josie Pagani argued this week that Ardern was obviously heavied by the US into taking a more belligerent stance on China than the Government would normally take. She perceptively points out that, although the joint Ardern-Biden statement was focused on condemning China, when the Beehive put out their own version of the statement in a press release, the anti-China statements were absent.

In terms of how to deal with China, Pagani observes that, although countries like New Zealand and the US are always keen to lecture smaller countries about what they should be doing, in this case we should be the ones listening to the Pacific Islands: “instead of offering advice, we should be humble enough to learn from a region that has been figuring out how to navigate the superpower squeeze for longer than we have.”

Pagani, who has worked for a long time on Pacific and development aid, says we should be aware that the Pacific are actually being offered good deals from China, and so we shouldn’t be so dismissive. If anything, New Zealand should be partnering with Pacific countries in how they orientate to offers of help, instead of just “chest-thumping on China”.

In favour of partnerships in the Pacific

Waikato University’s Alexander Gillespie also says that the current reset in the Pacific comes in the context of New Zealand’s neglect of those countries, especially in terms of aid spending. He points out that this country spends much less than the agreed target of 0.7% of gross national income. In fact, New Zealand falls well short, with only 0.26%, well down on the high point reached of 0.52%. New Zealand needs to “put its money where its mouth is” instead of complaining about China giving assistance.

Gillespie argues in favour of partnerships and cooperation with China in the Pacific. He says: “Chinese influence in the Pacific is not necessarily something that must be ‘countered’. For the good of the region, countries should seek ways to work together, especially given that aid to the Pacific is often fragmented, volatile, unpredictable and opaque.”

If anything, Gillespie says New Zealand should be trying to ensure the “region is not militarised”. But this would mean taking on not just China, but also the US, Australia, and indeed reversing our own escalation of military spending on arms for the region.

It’s not just voices of the political left like Clark, Pagani and Gillespie that are critical of the Labour Government choosing to throw its lot in with the US against China. Former National prime minister John Key is the other high profile figure warning against the path that Ardern is taking New Zealand down.

Key told Newshub this week that Beijing will be present in the Pacific forever and it’s a “waste of time” trying to get them out. He said New Zealand should be “working with them instead.” Similarly, National’s foreign spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said that trade with China should be the “starting point” in navigating the issues in the Pacific.

Other experts with a strong knowledge of China are making pleas for the Government and the more hawkish commentators to calm down. For instance, New Zealander Warrick Cleine, who is the CEO of KPMG in Vietnam and Cambodia, says that it’s strange and disturbing to hear New Zealand commentators “beating the drums of war and the public being primed for conflict”.

Cleine says that his experience in Asia has led him to believe that there’s no need for the “level of alarmism in New Zealand”. He argues that the experience of other Asian countries is that a good relationship can be had with China, and independent foreign policy can be maintained.

Today Māori leader and commentator John Tamihere has also spoken out in favour of New Zealand taking a more independent stance in the US vs China tensions and he stands up for the right of Pacific nations to do deals with China without receiving criticisms. He says, “to beat up on the Chinese for doing business with sovereign nations is just racism”, and argues that the evidence doesn’t stake up for the New Zealand narrative about “the nasty Chinese and the nice Yanks and Aussies”.

Tamihere says that “it is about time we shaped our own foreign policy rather than being dragged along by others”, and by way of warning refers to Australia becoming “the 51st State of the USA”.

Sinophobia and drumbeats of war

There is definitely a rising drumbeat of war amongst many political commentators, as well as academic international relations specialists, who tend to gravitate towards support for the United States. Canterbury University’s Anne-Marie Brady believes China is trying to physically isolate New Zealand by dominating the Pacific Islands, and her view seems to be catching on with many others.

Bernard Hickey wrote this week on his Kaka website that New Zealand should be preparing for war against China: “My personal view is we should get as much US military presence as we possibly can on our shores, and also arm ourselves to the teeth with drones, missiles, maritime surveillance and strike forces to keep the EEZ safe from China’s fishing fleets. China is a truly dangerous, ugly and malign force in our world.”

The idea of New Zealand becoming something of a deputy sheriff to the United States in the Pacific is increasingly asserted in the media.

The need for engagement

New Zealand would be well advised to step up its engagement with countries in the Pacific and Asia. Currently, the Ardern administration appears overly concerned with visiting and communicating with the Anglo and European countries, and that’s a mistake.

Geoffrey Miller of the Democracy Project has called for more engagement with China, as “There is a very Cold War-style feeling at the moment. The only way to avoid that is by talking.” In addition, to reduce such “geo-polarisation” Miller says “I would have liked to see Mahuta invite [Foreign Minister] Wang Yi to New Zealand as part of his Pacific tour.”

Similarly, the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett has suggested that Ardern now needs to travel to China to repair the damage done. And Today FM’s Rachel Smalley suggests that the PM must go to Beijing before any other cities outside New Zealand.

Smalley has asked why New Zealand is biting the hand that feeds, especially by signing up to the joint statement with the US that attacked China so strongly: “this statement was ill-thought-through by Ardern and her advisors. I think we’ve been played by the Americans. They have a very challenging relationship with China and they have used us, and our relationship with China, to point score. The Americans have nothing to lose from this, but we do, and potentially we have.”

Smalley, like others, suggests we should be very willing to criticise China for any problems that we might have with them, but we don’t do it as part of a pile-on instigated by their increasingly hostile rival superpower the US. She rightly suggests that we are now jeopardising a perfectly good $33bn trade relationship and our independent foreign policy just for some photo opportunities in the Oval Office. Hardly a worthwhile trade-off.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on NZ’s international relations

John Tamihere (Herald): China has every right to korero with our Pacific brothers and sisters and not be sneered at
Josie Pagani (Stuff): We should learn from how the Pacific has navigated between superpowers
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): It’s time for New Zealand to heal our relationship with China
Matthew Hooton (Herald): Why Nanaia Mahuta should be full-time Foreign Minister(paywalled)
1News: Ardern denies NZ is asleep at wheel as China pushes into Pacific
Herald: Editorial – Even with lean to US, NZ should keep good ties with China(paywalled)
Richard Harman: Helen Clark warns Ardern not to blindly follow others on foreign policy(paywalled)
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Just as Ardern was hoping for a foreign policy win, her Government was found wanting
Claire Trevett (Herald): PM Jacinda Ardern made most of US trip, but is China tipping point close? (paywalled)
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): Is the foreign affairs role too much for Nanaia Mahuta? (paywalled)
Warrick Cleine (Stuff): How New Zealand can make sense of China’s Pacific foray
Kevin Norquay (Stuff): Red flags fly as China charms the Pacific; should New Zealand be worried?
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): China’s Pacific wins and ‘overconfidence’ failure
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Time for New Zealand to up its game in the Pacific
Alexander Gillespie (The Conversation): To meet the Chinese challenge in the Pacific, NZ needs to put its money where its mouth is
Tess McClure (Guardian): ‘We don’t need to be reactive’: New Zealand keeps faith in its foreign policy amid China Pacific push
Jane Patterson (RNZ): New Zealand lining up beside old ‘friend’ after historic White House visit
Newstalk: Nanaia Mahuta, Chinese ambassador differ in meeting accounts
Thomas Manch (Stuff): National Party urges Government to push ahead with defence spending, as Pacific contest heats up
Michael Neilson (Herald): China in the Pacific: Nanaia Mahuta, Chinese ambassador on US statement
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Chinese Ambassador says NZ-US statement raised in Nanaia Mahuta meeting after minister skirts questions
RNZ: Government downplays discussion with China’s ambassador over joint NZ/US statement
Duncan Garner (NBR): Washington to Wellington – has Ardern just saved her job?(paywalled)
Simon O’Connor (Patreon): Explainer: Why China’s move into the Pacific is an issue for NZ (paywalled)
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Henare to push Pacific at defence summit
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ‘frustrated’ by criticism over Nanaia Mahuta’s absence from Pacific
John Weekes (Herald): ‘Secret’ Chinese military base in Cambodia: Ardern says NZ opposes Asia-Pacific militarisation
Amelia Wade (Newshub): China’s Ambassador says relationship with New Zealand ‘going well’, won’t discuss Beijing’s intentions in Pacific
ODT: Editorial – Jacinda goes to Washington
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Rubbing elbows with Albo – what Jacinda Ardern’s Oz trip means for NZ (paywalled)


Other items of interest and importance this week

Richard Prebble (Herald): Will Labour be forced into a snap election? (paywalled)
Ben Thomas (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern: From triumph overseas to end-of-empire at home
Lloyd Burr (The Platform): Why Ardern should be worried about Boris’ huge dip in popularity
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government asks for help to fix Māori electoral law, but it needs support

Guyon Espiner (RNZ): How Christopher Luxon is rebranding the National Party
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Why National is winning
Peter Dunne: Smugness a Risk for Luxon
Mike Houlahan (ODT): Luxon settling in for his long job interview
Newshub: Christopher Luxon denies he considered standing for Labour
Brigitte Morten (NBR): Where is National’s alternative budget? (paywalled)

1News: Poll: Is Trevor Mallard doing a good job as Speaker?
Craig McCulloch and Russell Palmer (RNZ): Speaker Trevor Mallard criticised over silence on trespass notices fiasco
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Speaker Trevor Mallard barges through media, refuses to take questions over protest handling
Maiki Sherman (1News): Trevor Mallard fronts over Parliament protest trespass notices

David Farrar: Ipsos Issues Monitor May 2022
Luke Oldfield (Stuff): Are fringe groups set to break through at next year’s election?
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): James Shaw’s constant battle that’s hampering Greens
Audrey Young (Herald): What really happened in Labour’s bitter Manurewa selection(paywalled)
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Inside Louisa Wall’s diplomatic sinecure
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): John Tamihere replaces Che Wilson as Māori Party president
Tess McClure (Guardian): NZ Māori party rules out right-wing coalition after next election
Tess McClure (Guardian): New Zealand’s next kingmakers: who are the Māori party?
Thomas Manch and Glenn McConnell (Stuff): The key questions that are set to define the 2023 election
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer (Herald): National and Labour falling out of favour and smaller political parties rising
Anissa Ljanta (Spinoff): The way we leave the world: a review of the new Jeanette Fitzsimons biography
ODT: Editorial – How young is too young?
David Farrar: Roy Morgan poll May 2022
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): New poll has Labour one point ahead of National, and suggests the gap could widen
1News: Poll: National still on top, Labour dips again

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Nanaia’s super-narrative
Graham Adams (The Platform): Mahuta imbroglio a quagmire for the Government
Kate MacNamara (Herald): Second Government payment made to Labour minister Nanaia Mahuta’s husband’s firm (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (The Platform): MSM’s silence speaks volumes
The Platform: 3 reasons there must be a truly independent review into Three Waters

Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): Ardern’s govt has failed to deliver meaningful gains in growing trust
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Ombudsman to crack down on OIA delays
Imogen Wells (Newshub): Government blames COVID-19 for 46 percent increase in communications staff
Cas Carter (Newsroom): When public relations finally crossed the line
Kate MacNamara (Herald): Social media surveillance included Kiwis’ private messages sent to Government (paywalled)

Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Climate Minister James Shaw stays diplomatic on farming emissions plan his party calls ‘lame’
Richard Harman: Ag leaders warn Groundswell — continue protesting and you’ll put us in the ETS (paywalled)
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Politicians cautious over He Waka Eke Noa farm emissions pricing plan
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, Nanaia Mahuta face-off over New Zealand’s approach to deep-sea mining
Gerhard Uys (Stuff): Could a nitrogen fertiliser cap mean our national dairy herd will become smaller?

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Macho chest-beating won’t tame the gangs, but Poto Williams’ “softly, softly” approach just might
Herald: Auckland shootings: Opposition leader Christopher Luxon calls for police minister to be replaced as crime sweeps the city
Herald: Editorial: How to tackle gang crime (paywalled)
Damien Venuto (Herald): Will Australian-style gang laws actually work in New Zealand?
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern still has confidence in Poto Williams, but won’t say if she will remain Police Minister after reshuffle
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Gang law options considered as shootings continue – Police Minister
Te Aniwa Hurihanganui (1News): Review suggests police more likely to harm non-Pākehā

Mike Chatterley (Spinoff): We need to turn the tide of public sentiment on three waters
Jordan Williams (Taxpayers Union): New poll: 76% Believe water entities should be accountable to voters
Stuff: Councils tell court Three Waters reforms could lead to other asset grabs
Kristie Boland (Stuff): Anti-water reform campaigners call on ministers to rethink ‘attack on democracy’
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Three waters: LGNZ admits poor communications strained council relations
Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): High Court challenge to the Three Waters assets starts
Russell Palmer (RNZ): First of ‘several’ Three Waters bills introduced to Parliament
RNZ: Council votes to reduce fee to LGNZ in protest of Three Waters reforms
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): New Three Waters bill fails to provide final privatisation safeguard
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): What do we do about Three Waters?

Stuff: Editorial – Let’s hope Health NZ’s transparency is less shaky than Hutt Hospital
Ian Powell: The not-‘seize the time’ health budget
Vandhna Bhan (1News): Wellington hospitals using outdated, faulty equipment
Ian Powell: How not to rebuild public hospitals
David Schnauer (Herald): What Pharmac has in common with the Reserve Bank(paywalled)
Zoe Madden-Smith (Re:News): Self-harm hospitalisations have doubled for 10-14-year-olds
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Renewed calls to address migrant doctor ‘bottleneck’ as GP shortage worsens
Rachel Smalley (NBR): Where’s the blood in the water after Pharmac review?(paywalled)

1News: Two-thirds of Kiwis think beneficiaries should get cost of living payment
Geraden Cann (Stuff): Signs suggest the rich are trying to dodge new tax – here’s what’s being done about it
Shane Te Pou (Herald): Lift wages for a more productive economy (paywalled)
Liam Dann (Herald): The big storm warning we should take seriously (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government quietly backtracks on tax changes after outcry
Daniel Smith (Stuff): More tax for country’s 14 billionaires ‘inevitable’
Tamsyn Parker (Herald): Proposed modern slavery law goes too far, legal and business experts warn (paywalled)
Craig Renney (Herald): Setting the story straight on Fair Pay Agreements (paywalled)
Jo Moir (Newsroom): The perils of diplomacy in a cost-of-living crisis
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Three reasons the Government will find it hard to fix supermarkets
Lana Hart (Stuff): There are some silver linings on the rising cost cloud
Bruce Cotterill (Herald): Brace yourself — this landing could get bumpy (paywalled)

Anne Gibson (Herald): Sale of the century: 55-60% of Auckland’s large-scale state land to be sold for private ownership
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Is the NZ housing market downturn anything to be worried about?
Anne Gibson (Herald): NZ house prices forecast to drop 18% from $905,000 to $740,000 – Jarden analyst
John Anthony (Stuff): Average cost of building a home in main centres skyrockets 21% in past year, QV CostBuilder says
Herald: Transitional housing costs nearly double in two years, over $330 million spent last year (paywalled)
Ethan Te Ora (Stuff): Worries about landlords’ reaction stymie investigations into thousands of potentially damp or mouldy homes

Emile Donovan (RNZ): What’s behind Christchurch City Council’s popularity slump?
Nadine Porter (Stuff): Satisfaction with Christchurch council plummets to 15-year low
John MacDonald (Herald): Christchurch City Council would lose confidence vote
David Williams (Newsroom): Inside a council’s spiral of unpopularity

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): The next Rotorua? Government likely to pass Ngāi Tahu bill, creating permanent representation on ECan
RNZ: Permanent Ngāi Tahu representation on Environment Canterbury a step closer
Jessica Roden (1News): 15 councils using voting system which ranks candidates
Cherie Sivignon (Stuff): Local government doesn’t need ‘one-size-fits-all model’ from Wellington
Stephen Ward (Stuff): ‘Once in a generation shift’ could need slower reform pace, says LGNZ leader
Keiller MacDuff (Stuff): Lack of diversity lamented as local government elections loom
Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): Having three new mayors in Northland could spell trouble for local democracy – expert

Karl du Fresne: The vacuum at the heart of the democratic process
Duncan Greive (Spinoff): Sky is in advanced talks to buy MediaWorks – what would that mean?
Alison Mau (Stuff): TVNZ’s spectacular own goal – and what should happen next
Mark Jennings (Newsroom): TVNZ’s unholy mess
Brent Edwards (NBR): Double standards on media freedom? (paywalled)

Dane Giraud (Stuff): We need a spirit of tolerance, not a rush to cancel from left or right
Ani O’Brien (Listener/Herald): Free speech: It’s more complicated than you think(paywalled)
Steve Maharey (Stuff): We need to understand there are limits to what speaking freely means
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): ‘Lack of progress’ on hate speech and hate crime reforms
Wilhelmina Shirimpton (Today FM): Cutting to the core of cancel culture

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why Professor Kidman’s appointment to an Academy of Extremism is so problematic
Steven Cowan: Professor Joanna Kidman: Extremist
Chris Lynch: Co-director appointment for terrorism research centre “disturbing”

Newshub: Most Tauranga locals disagree with Te Pāti Māori claim their city is racist – Newshub Nation-Reid Research poll
Newshub: National Party’s Sam Uffindell cruising to victory in Tauranga by-election, Newshub Nation-Reid Research poll shows