Winston Peters and Ron Mark, pictured in October 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

NZ has signalled a new, tougher stance on China. How will Beijing respond?

Ron Mark on Friday revealed the most important foreign policy statement we have seen yet from the new government, including an unmistakable shift in NZ’s position on China, writes David Capie

The government’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement, launched on Friday by defence minister Ron Mark, signals a new view of New Zealand’s security challenges. It sounds a more worried tone about the security picture in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Perhaps most notably it breaks new ground with its frank language about China’s actions in the South China Sea and how it characterises the rising power’s wider ambitions.

The statement describes three major challenges putting pressure on the “rules-based order” that has served New Zealand well over the last seven decades. These are shifts in the balance of power and the emergence of “spheres of influence”; challenges to open societies such as the rise of populism and illiberalism; and what it calls “complex disruptors” including the proliferation of new technologies, extremist ideologies, climate change and transnational crime. As these pressures grow and interact, it concludes, “the foundation of international security is shifting.”

It is worth remembering that the statement is first and foremost a political document. It is designed to signal the coalition government’s priorities and approach. I think it is aimed both a domestic and an international audience.

Its first goal is to provide a coherent narrative about defence and security the three parties in government can all get behind. This is most obvious in the attention given to climate change as a cause of insecurity, particularly in the Pacific. This serves as a rationale for defence spending that resonates across the government, including the Greens. Equally, emphasising the role defence plays in “community and nation” is an attempt to remind all New Zealanders that the Defence Force plays an essential role in responding to natural disasters, helps protect our environment, conducts fisheries patrols, supports biosecurity operations and even makes possible science in the Antarctic.

This domestic pitch has a certain urgency: today, acting prime minister (and, irony alert: minister for disarmament and arms control) Winston Peters is expected to announce the purchase of four Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to replace the aging P-3 Orions. This multibillion-dollar deal will be the country’s biggest acquisition of defence equipment since the ANZAC frigates more than 20 years ago. The range of challenges – traditional and non-traditional – described in the policy statement doubtless played a part in persuading more sceptical Cabinet colleagues to sign on.

But the policy also has an international audience. It represents the most important foreign policy statement we have seen yet from the new government. It has Cabinet backing and was signed off by the heads of all the relevant government ministries. As such, it sends some important signals about how the government sees its security relationships.

The 2016 Defence White Paper called China “an important strategic partner”, listing it first after the four traditional Five Eyes friends. The 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement bumps Beijing well down the page, putting it after South Pacific countries, Southeast Asian partners, regional defence dialogues, Korea and Japan. Gone is the heady language of strategic partnership, instead New Zealand merely “continues to build a strong and resilient partnership with China”. The last government signed a five-year engagement plan with the People’s Liberation Army, but the new policy seems to limit defence cooperation to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The statement also breaks new ground in the way it discusses Chinese actions in the region. While noting Beijing is a welcome contributor to peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations, it says China has “not consistently adopted the governance and values championed by the order’s traditional leaders”. Beijing “seeks to restore claimed historical levels of influence … [and] some actions in pursuit of these aims challenge the existing order.” It lists a range of (presumably unwelcome) developments in maritime East Asia, including China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in 2013, island-building in the South China Sea, and the landing of long-range bombers, including nuclear-capable aircraft, on those features. There is a reference to growing Chinese influence in the Pacific, a new base in Antarctica, and among the disruptions closer to home are the “steep debt burdens associated with infrastructure projects” in the Pacific.

The new language is a case of New Zealand’s public position on China catching up with the long-held private views of officials and politicians. Beijing’s actions in disregarding international tribunals, chipping away at the Exclusive Economic Zones of its neighbours, and using its economic power to coerce have been alarming for a small maritime nation dependent on a world where the big guys play by the rules. Some in government clearly believe the Key-English government was too timid when it came to calling out Beijing’s bad behaviour. The growing perception in Washington and Canberra  – rightly or wrongly – that New Zealand is unwilling to confront Chinese “political influence” has only raised the stakes. To address this, the defence policy statement is a clear tilt back towards traditional partners, notwithstanding some gentle criticism of Washington’s decisions about TPP and the Paris climate change agreement.

We now await Beijing’s reaction. It’s hard to imagine the signalling won’t have a cost, at least in the short term. It’s only been a few weeks since Mr Peters returned from Beijing with a commitment to a new round of negotiations for the upgrade of the FTA. Speaking to his audience in Wellington on Friday, Mark repeated that New Zealand saw China as an important “economic partner”. Whether Beijing is as happy to see trade and the security relationships as two discrete and unrelated channels remains to be seen.


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