NZ must be wary of this foreign policy challenge

The more the unrelenting US-China competition foreshadowed in contemporary US planning becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more New Zealand and its partners need to encourage a regional environment less dominated by the ambitions of the big two, writes Robert Ayson 

It’s not impossible to find foreign policy convergence between the Ardern Government and the Trump Administration. New Zealand’s Prime Minister recently said her Government ‘accepts’ the reasons for the limited use of force against Syria, which was led by the United States with contributions from the United Kingdom and France. New Zealand and the US have both endorsed the evolving dialogue between South and North Korea. And while Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un may not be able to make the region great again, Wellington will have taken some comfort that preparations for their meeting have delayed the chance of violence on the peninsula.

Yet the areas of divergence make for quite a list. In her first major foreign policy speech as Prime Minister, Ardern affirmed that a close relationship with the US was “fundamental” to New Zealand’s foreign policy outlook. But she also pinpointed two specific areas of difference. One was climate change. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement stands in contrast to Ardern’s pitch that this issue is the nuclear-free movement for her generation.

The second difference she highlighted was trade. After Trump's first-day withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), New Zealand and the remaining 11 partners have continued on without Washington to sign a ‘Comprehensive and Progressive’ version of that agreement. Moreover, the cooperative international trading order that suits New Zealand is in danger of a Trump-inspired reversal. Significant damage could be done, even if the US and China do not find themselves in a fully fledged trade war. And Trump’s World Trade Organisation scepticism (to use a polite word) signals a major challenge to the principal foundation of global economic rules.

That’s not all. Trump has been hostile to the very same nuclear agreement with Iran that then-foreign minister Murray McCully cited at the UN Security Council as a rare example of necessary cooperation between the veto-holding great powers. Trump’s ability to tread on the toes of America’s closest allies and partners, including members of the Five Eyes intelligence group, will also have been watched with concern from Wellington.

In the midst of this run of depressing news from Washington, it has still been possible to imagine that this President is an exception to the rule of general wisdom and continuity in US foreign policy. Some of us have been hoping that two American foreign policies are in play and that a counter-Trump ‘shadow’ variation offers a viable alternative for moderate countries like New Zealand who are invested heavily in international order.

Plenty of Republican and Democratic foreign policy-makers reject Trump’s worldview, and some have done so rather loudly. The existence of that bipartisan community, outside and inside of public office, suggests New Zealand can have profitable connections with the US even when it has to distance itself from the President’s latest tweet. That may be what Foreign Minister Winston Peters had in mind in telling Corin Dann that rather than engaging with the views of Trump he was “far more concerned to talk to a rational, sane, stand-out person who has got a great background in business called Rex Tillerson, because in the end … foreign policy is about the relationship between people, not temporarily empowered politicians”.

Tillerson lasted another nine days as Secretary of State. But neither his departure, nor that of chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, has killed off the shadow foreign policy. Many important people in Washington still have reassuring views about America’s long-term interests and values, and understand the importance of consistent engagement, traditional relationships and international institutions. And that means supporting many of the international rules that work for New Zealand.

The more that US opinion solidifies around seeing China as an implacable adversary with no shared interests in the rules-based system, especially if Beijing takes umbrage, the less space there is for New Zealand’s own brand of foreign policy.

But there were always going to be risks with the shadow track. Until recently, I feared it would disappear as the official community was forced to play catch-up with the 45th President. If the Commander-in-Chief decides on war, it is the Pentagon’s job to carry that out. If Trump doesn’t like the North American Free Trade Agreement, his trade negotiators will then need to explain why. Big moments of decision can cause the system to adjust to its new leader rather than vice versa.

But following valuable discussions in Auckland with well-plugged-in American commentators, I now have a different concern. The existence of an alternative, non-Trumpian, view is not in doubt. But it includes a growing US consensus on America’s relationship with China that is so negative it should concern Wellington.

This dystopian vision fits in with the recent Economist editorial that the West has lost its bet that Beijing can be socialised into supporting the Western-led rules-based order. The last nail in that coffin has come from Chinese President Xi Jingping’s assumption of permanent leadership. But the die had already been cast. In this unrelenting narrative, China has been ripping up the rules-based order in the South China Sea, denying fair access to US businesses in China, stealing US intellectual property, intimidating and mobilising the Chinese diaspora, and establishing an alternative economic order via the Belt and Road Initiative. In this vision, Beijing’s growing influence in the developing world is a malevolent menace.

In his address to the US-NZ gathering in Auckland, deputy assistant secretary of state Walter Douglas said the US has “a competitive relationship with China, but it doesn’t mean conflict or containment and does not preclude cooperation”. But for many promoters of the revised thinking, China appears to have become an implacable adversary with whom the US has no common values and far fewer common interests than had previously been thought.

Democrat Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s much expected triumph would probably have meant a tougher US stance on China from the get-go. But Trump’s unexpected victory, and his unconventional thinking on the international relationships that really mattered to America, delayed the implementation of this. So too did his early agenda: in his first year, Trump often emphasised cooperation with Xi to put pressure on North Korea.

But there is a plan to get the President on board as much as possible with the zero-sum stance. A strongly adversarial view of China has been finding its way into Trump Administration documents.

It is evident in this year’s National Defense Strategy, which depicts China as “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features of the South China Sea”, and which prompted Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to suggest that her country did not see things in quite the same way. This view of China as a “revisionist” power alongside Russia was also there in Trump’s first National Security Strategy, which asserts that: “For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”

Given Trump’s changing moods, nobody can expect him to implement this hardline approach consistently. But some of his most volatile moments, including his escalating language on tariffs against China, can be massaged into this picture. Meanwhile, Trump’s new economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, has called for a “trade coalition of the willing” against China and his Agriculture Secretary has been encouraging the President to look positively on the TPP as it “forms a united front with our allies in an effort of tariff reduction that excludes China, to our benefit and not to their benefit”.

The challenge to New Zealand is obvious. The more that US opinion solidifies around seeing China as an implacable adversary with no shared interests in the rules-based system, especially if Beijing takes umbrage, the less space there is for New Zealand’s own brand of foreign policy. In her February speech, Ardern indicated issues where New Zealand had clear differences of opinion with the People’s Republic. But she also characterised China as a contributor to the rules-based system. “Its leadership on issues like climate change and trade liberalisation,” she said, “could add momentum to our collective efforts in those areas.” Readers will note these are the two areas where the Prime Minister expressed New Zealand’s disappointment with the Trump Administration.

Wellington can therefore take little comfort from signs Trump is edging closer to the establishment foreign policy view in Washington if the latter sees US-China relations in such starkly zero-sum terms. Trump’s default position, recently criticised by French President Emmanuel Macron, is inherently unsuitable to Wellington because it dismisses rules and multilateralism. But New Zealand also loses if the alternative foreign policy in Washington treats the rules-based order simply as a weapon for the West to use against China.

Finding diplomatic allies who see that system as an inclusive one (however difficult it may be to work with such a diverse set of political regimes) will become an even more important priority for the Ardern Government. Hopes that Wellington and other capitals simply have to weather the Trump years before the US goes back to normal will seem increasingly naïve. And the more the unrelenting US-China competition foreshadowed in contemporary US planning becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more New Zealand and its partners need to encourage a regional environment less dominated by the ambitions of the big two. Working out how that can be achieved will be the big foreign policy challenge for the next several years.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the Incline website, which publishes original analysis and commentary on issues and trends that impact New Zealand’s international relations.

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