New Zealand’s supply of vaccines to the Pacific may cap a critical role in the region’s rising geopolitical tensions, writes Pattrick Smellie of BusinessDesk.
Last week’s announcement New Zealand has secured enough vaccinations not only for its own population, but for Pacific Island “neighbour” nations, is significant for more than just the fact that we have a place in the queue.
The fact New Zealand has secured vaccinations for the Pacific pushes aside others who might have aspired to be the Pacific’s vaccine provider.
Australia, the United States, Japan, Taiwan and China might all have stepped in to some extent. Some may yet do so. New Zealand’s timetable for general vaccination roll-out is not scheduled before the middle of next year, at the earliest. It could be gazumped by a more ambitious or less cautious provider.
New Zealand is the natural provider of vaccines for several reasons. Most obvious is the large Pasifika diaspora that lives in New Zealand. To be able to move between Aotearoa and home, Pasifika populations need to be vaccinated at both ends.
Secondly, New Zealand has a sorry history with viruses in the Pacific. Careless colonial administrators let passengers from Auckland ashore in Apia from the trading ship Talune in November 1918.
Samoa, which had been free of the flu sweeping the globe, lost one-fifth of its population after just six infected New Zealanders were allowed to land. It took another 84 years, in 2002, for the New Zealand government to apologise.
Throughout the Covid-19 response, there has been much talk about “opening up to the Pacific Islands”, as if the islands are passive recipients of New Zealand’s actions. That misses how anxious Pacific Island governments have been not to import the virus, in part because of that dire history.
However, all those governments are equally focused on reopening their economies as soon as they can to allow their vital tourism sectors to revive. This underpins the third main reason why it’s important New Zealand secure vaccines for the Pacific: we don’t want others to get there first.
Poking the Panda
And by others, we mean China, even if we don’t say so explicitly.
The foreign affairs and trade briefing to incoming ministers, published last week, talked of the risk that a “more contested region with non-traditional external partners increasing their presence in the Pacific has implications for stability and governance norms.”
That is: there is a fear that governments in the Pacific may turn either willingly or reluctantly to more generous new friends for assistance to finance their struggling economies through and beyond the pandemic. And that such assistance will come with unhelpful strings attached.
Most obvious among those would-be friends is China, whose regional expansionism is on display in its creation of artificial islands for naval bases in the South China Sea and a torrent of soft loans to the Pacific Islands in recent years. The Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, has tracked Chinese lending to the Pacific and last year — pre-Covid-19 — produced projections of six Pacific nations’ indebtedness to China by 2024.
With the exception of Papua New Guinea, whose closest colonial ties are to Australia, the six are countries with either close geographic or political ties to New Zealand: Tonga, Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, and Vanuatu.
“Four of the six countries that currently borrow from China — Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji — are already effectively at our 50% warning threshold and, with the exception of Fiji, would be pushed well beyond this under our business-as-usual scenario,” Lowy researchers concluded. “Vanuatu stands out as a particular concern, given in late 2018 it signed up for another large loan-financed Chinese roads project.”
An uncomfortable fence
This matters more in the year ahead because New Zealand’s primary sphere of external influence is the South Pacific and New Zealand’s relationships with China and its traditional allies face big, new challenges.
China’s increasingly hot trade war with Australia, the closest US ally in the region, is a message to New Zealand and others there are consequences for too strongly criticising Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian bent under President Xi Jinping.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC, a new American president with a desire to stitch back together frayed alliances is likely to call more strongly on New Zealand than the Trump administration ever did to declare which side of the fence it sits on.
There are signs of this already. For example, Wellington last month joined a Five Eyes intelligence network statement criticising China when, earlier in the year, New Zealand stood at one remove and made its own, more nuanced statement.
Meanwhile, the most important US ally in the Pacific — Japan — is suggesting the Five Eyes should become ‘Six Eyes’, with the containment of Chinese regional ambitions a clear, primary objective.
This is all very fraught for a small economic and diplomatic player like New Zealand, especially one so dependent on China as its largest single trading partner.
Buoyant trade with a back-to-normal China has been a key part of New Zealand’s good news health and economic story as the Covid-19 pandemic plays out.
With exports to China heavily concentrated in the dairy sector, New Zealand’s political, trade and diplomatic leaders are under no illusion that an Australia-style freeze-out could be very damaging. However, a spineless response to Chinese aggression and human rights abuses is not an option either.
New Zealand cannot afford to be seen to be silent simply to keep selling milk powder. But nor can New Zealand assume China needs New Zealand milk powder so badly it wouldn’t seek to teach New Zealand — always more friendly than Australia but also more malleable — a sharp lesson, if it wants to.
Best foot forward
The diplomatic answer to this is simple: to play our limited hand of cards as best we can.
Firstly, New Zealand is chairing APEC for the next year. As a trade and economic grouping, APEC embraces both China and the US, along with the other key protagonists in the Asia-Pacific region. By holding the pen, New Zealand also gets to guide trade and economic conversations in the year ahead.
This is what lies behind a breathless and mangled report last week suggesting that foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta could “broker peace” between Australia and China. She would not be so presumptuous. What she can do, however, is use New Zealand’s influence through its APEC position to try and steer conversations between hostile parties onto common ground.
New Zealand can do the same on issues where, for example, the US and China will be more aligned in coming years. For example, the Biden administration will take the US back into the Paris Agreement on climate change. To the extent New Zealand and China already make a virtue of working constructively on climate change while disagreeing elsewhere, there is a bridge for New Zealand to have conversations that bring China and the US closer where cooperation remains possible.
And in the Pacific, where the contest for influence between the two global superpowers is playing out already, New Zealand must do everything it can to leverage and, above all, deepen the relationships it has with Pacific neighbours.
It does that by doing what New Zealand, at its best, does best: listening, seeking to understand, assisting as needed, deepening shared cultural and people-to-people connections, and championing liberal values that are the bulwark against authoritarianism, debt-diplomacy and military expansionism.
This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.