Strengthening New Zealand relationships in East Asia

Terence O'Brien is a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University. A former diplomat, he has recently written 'Presence of Mind: New Zealand and the World', which was published by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in August 2009.

Please note that the views expressed by the author of this feature do not necessarily reflect the views of Asia:NZ.Mr O'Brien is part of our Track II register and we welcome contributions from voices across the register.

It has become conventional wisdom in this country that notwithstanding New Zealand’s genuine global interests, her future will be shaped by economic and social progress in East Asia, where the transformation of the past 30 years or more has profoundly changed political and economic order in the region, and in the world. Progress has not been uniform and setbacks have occurred, and may recur. But the trajectory of the advance is the product of autonomous choice in different East Asian capitals to commit to economic and social progress, and to renounce aggression as a way to secure it. Ideas from elsewhere have been adapted and astutely applied but regional governments do not consider that they owe regional success to the magnanimity, leadership or protection of others. The current global financial and economic crisis and the reasons behind it, will have served to reinforce such sentiment.

The re-emergence of China and its magnetic effects on the region, and on the world, is transforming the order of things. It is vital that China’s accomplishments provide reassurance to neighbours and partners. The challenges to sustainability, to political and social cohesion inside China itself are immense, and success is not automatically assured. The need for cooperative institutions through which East Asia can collectively mediate the challenges of the profound changes now in train, is therefore indisputable. It is in New Zealand’s national interest that East Asian regionalism always evolves in an open transparent way. But such regionalism will develop according to its own pace and the form and content will be decided in the end by regional governments themselves. Outside countries cannot dictate preferences. It is quite possible that there will be no consensus on for example, the inclusion of the United States in the evolving architecture of regionalism. It would be nonetheless a mistake for US friends and outsiders to try to force that issue. Greater East Asian cohesion serves US interests even if the US is not included.

The fear that East Asian regionalism without American involvement would somehow become under Chinese influence, an instrument of anti- American policy, defies credibility. Other East Asian governments whose support and understanding China needs, would not condone it. Like China itself, they   retain enormous bilateral interests with the US. On the other side of the same coin, East Asian governments equally resist any definition of China as a threat that must be contained militarily. That is a message for the US. Amongst some regional neighbours an understandable wariness does exist about China’s size and potential, but learning to live with such apprehension has been part of regional life experience for centuries.

Military modernisation is traditionally a consequence of economic growth and East Asia is no exception. But to describe current modernisation efforts there as an arms race goes too far. A sense of proportion remains vital. China’s share of world military expenditure for example stands at four to five percent; that of the US nearly 50 percent.  Some of China’s present military modernisation can be plausibly explained moreover  as a defensive  response to US forward  military deployments in East Asia. Given the monumental domestic  challenges which  China confronts with  securing economic progress so heavily dependent  upon outside  technology, investment and markets, there is no conceivable reason to explain why it would risk external  aggression. From a New Zealand perspective it is difficult to subscribe now to a view of China as a military threat, which is the conclusion that appears to underlie the 2009 Australian government White Paper on Defence.

For New Zealand there is a political dimension to the economic opportunities offered by East Asia that requires sound government-to-government relationships and foreign policy convergence on issues where shared interests offer the potential for such convergence - such as resource security, climate change, reform of international institutions (to permit Asian governments a rightful place in their operations and management), disarmament and non-proliferation etc.  Tenacious long haul New Zealand diplomacy constantly requires identifying possibilities for foreign policy convergence with governments in East Asia.

We cannot duck the hard fact that New Zealand does not possess sufficient strategic critical mass to interest governments of East Asia. Such strategic invisibility permits nonetheless independence of thinking about international relations.  That is a primary theme in the recent book, “Presence of Mind- New Zealand in the World.”  At the bottom line, New Zealand has always to carve a pathway by itself for itself, with East Asia.  Openness, a non-threatening profile, a problem solving mentality, a capacity for impartiality can be leveraged by New Zealand to sustain foreign policy in East Asia. The fact that it has placed reconciliation between its indigenous people and its later arrivals at the centre of New Zealand democracy, plus the anticipated changes to its demography which means that some 40 percent of its population by 2030 will be of non-European heritage (made up of Asian, Maori and Polynesian) are distinctive New Zealand features, and must influence its self view in the century ahead.

A formal trade relationship with China and formal political/security/ trade links to South East Asia, plus membership in the East Asia Summit (EAS) supply solid foundations for fashioning constructive and rewarding New Zealand relationships in East Asia. Deepening and widening similar relationships elsewhere, especially with countries like India, where New Zealand is a late starter, is now indispensable for government and non-government entities alike.

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Listen to an interview with Terence O'Brien on RNZ's Sunday Morning show (30 August 2009)

Image of Pudong, Shanghai sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Last updated: 18 Dec 2012