Robert Ayson: Rise of Chinese dragon could divide Australia and NZ

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Robert Ayson is professor and director of Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, which recently co-hosted a symposium on New Zealand, Australia and China's rise. He says a political understanding with China is necessary.

We lack defence capabilities to intervene in a US-China conflict. Photo / APN
We lack defence capabilities to intervene in a US-China conflict. Photo / APN

China Southern's new air routes confirm New Zealand's increasing integration with the new Asia-Pacific economy centred on China's rise. Our free trade agreement with China is part of that picture.

And in the past few years Australia's economy has benefited even more than ours from China's huge appetite for resources and minerals. The resulting Australian prosperity has helped New Zealand avoid a deeper recession.

It seems obvious that China's rise can only bring Australia and New Zealand closer together. From another angle, however, Wellington and Canberra may be viewing China from different viewpoints.

Australia is more concerned than New Zealand about the impact of China's rise on the Asian balance of power. As the more violent era of Japan's expansion in the 1940s showed us, Australia is more exposed geographically in the region.

It is no coincidence that Australian governments have relied heavily on a strong security alliance with the United States.

The relative decline in American power and the growing confidence of China, including in its military dimension, presents a more worrying picture across the Tasman than it does here. New Zealand appears to have been more relaxed about the strategic implications of China's rise.

In the event of a major security crisis between the US and China, the region's two heavyweights, it is worth considering whether Australia and New Zealand take the same approach.

In a dispute which began between China and Japan, the US' leading Asian ally, Australia would be expected to fall into line with Washington. The Australian Defence Force, which has maintained higher-end capabilities including advanced combat aircraft and submarines because of its concerns about the Asian balance, would be expected to come to the party.

Australia would be asked by Washington to make the choice it never wishes to make: between its US security ally and its Chinese economic partner.

New Zealand might do things differently. First, we lack defence capabilities useful in a stoush between the region's major powers. Second, the Wellington Declaration signed last year during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit does not re-establish a formal alliance. Australia would be obliged under the Anzus treaty to respond to an attack on US forces in the Asia-Pacific region. New Zealand would not.

While we might feel morally obliged, we might also prefer to join some of our friends in Southeast Asia and stay on the sidelines. New Zealand might offer a fig leaf of diplomatic support for Washington and at the same time try to leave our China relationship unharmed.

This hypothetical comparison works as long as we think New Zealand has gone a bit soft on China while Australia has been toughening up. The reality is different.

Australia's problem is that its robust stance towards the changing balance of military power in Asia is not integrated with its huge economic reliance on China. It is still possible to view Australia as the US' unwavering ally because of what Prime Minister Julia Gillard says in Washington, without looking at Australia's terms of trade.

The more Australia integrates these aspects, the less automatic its loyalty to the US will become.

New Zealand's problem is that we often let the important economic lens become a monocle through which we view China. It is good to learn that the Government's new China strategy recognises the need for a sound political relationship. This is an important transmission belt for building our already valuable economic ties. But a political understanding is essential for other contingencies as well, including for managing the occasional difference of opinion over issues such as human rights.

In a more complete New Zealand view of China these difficult issues are bound to crop up. So too will New Zealand's perceptions of China's impact on regional security.

Last year our Defence White Paper said that it was only to be expected that with China's growing economic clout would come greater political and military influence.

Niggles with the other major powers were also part of that process. Unlike the Australian 2009 White Paper, our view seemed rather cool and collected.

But our White Paper also emphasises New Zealand's interests in encouraging a strong American presence in the region.

The impression is that New Zealand needs to get a bit closer to Washington as the regional balance shifts with China's rise.

Background documents to the White Paper suggest even more caution. The outside chance of an armed conflict occurring on China's periphery in the coming years is acknowledged.

In one presentation made to the Cabinet, the aim of encouraging a strong US presence in the region sits alongside the idea of managing "China's increasing power".

Likewise, in a speech last week on New Zealand's China policy, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully emphasised New Zealand's satisfaction with the US' inclusion in the East Asian Summit, one of the region's leading multilateral forums in which New Zealand is also involved.

Suddenly the contrast with Australia doesn't seem quite as obvious.

We may still feel we have less to lose than Australia does from China's growing strategic weight, and our approaches do not have to be identical to be complementary.

But as we both become part of a regional security picture defined by China's rise, we might watch for further signs of convergence in our positioning between the major regional powers. Might some elements of a joint China strategy also be worth looking into?

- NZ Herald

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