Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: 'Rebalancing' could muddle other bonds

Biden's message could affect alliances made since Anzus exit.
The "rebalance" to the Asia Pacific is what used to be called the "pivot" until someone decided that that implied the US turning its back on others. Illustration / Guy Body
The "rebalance" to the Asia Pacific is what used to be called the "pivot" until someone decided that that implied the US turning its back on others. Illustration / Guy Body

In the afterglow of Joe Biden's charm offensive in New Zealand this week, it is easy to forget how bad things got at the breakup of the Anzus security alliance 30 years ago.

But like New Zealand's divorce from Britain when it joined the EEC, cutting ties with Anzus strengthened New Zealand and its outreach to other countries in Asia, and in Europe through its Nato partnership.

There is no question of New Zealand rejoining Anzus, but once the celebrations have died down, the question will be how much closer New Zealand gets to the US with the removal of such a hugely symbolic barrier?

The breakup of Anzus was a seismic event that mattered as much to the US as it did to New Zealand. Any of the key players of the day will tell you.

Secretary of State George Shultz, in Manila, with PM David Lange at his side, told reporters: "We part company as friends but we part company as far as the alliance is concerned."

On the sidelines of an Asean meeting, outside a hotel room, seemed hardly a fitting end to a security pact, which had operated for 35 years with New Zealand's two closest allies, Australia and the United States.

On the other hand, New Zealand's decision to reject the request for a visit by the warship Buchanan, which led to the collapse of Anzus, was made without a single paper being prepared for the cabinet. Hardly a fitting way to make policy with such major repercussions.

By the end, the US was exasperated with New Zealand and vice versa.

Neither could see the other's view. Extensive efforts failed to find ways for New Zealand to keep an anti-nuclear policy in co-existence with Anzus membership.

Lange's flippancy didn't help. For example, he joked that British defence force chief Sir John Fieldhouse left his office preceded by an aide carrying his hat on a silk cushion; and when Baroness Janet Young from the British Foreign Office came to help find a compromise, Lange joked she had left her broomstick at home.

Shultz may have said we parted as friends, but actually the rift infected the whole relationship for the next 20 years.

Washington blamed Wellington for what it saw as a weakening of regional stability in the breakup of Anzus during the Cold War.

Those same regional issues of stability are what brought Biden to Australia and New Zealand this week along with the announcement that the US will send a ship to the New Zealand navy's birthday in November.

The Biden trip was not about ship visits. Defence Secretary Ash Carter could have announced that by press statement.

His trip was about the "rebalance" of the US to the Asia Pacific, an assertion of US power in the face of China's rivalry as the main power in the region. It happened soon after China dismissed the international ruling against its maritime rights in the South China Seas - in a case taken by the Philippines, which has just elected a mercurial new president evidently a lot less wedded to the US than his predecessor.

You can see why the US is reinforcing its friendships.

By the end, the US was exasperated with New Zealand and vice versa.

Biden stopped off in Honolulu to board the aircraft carrier the USS John C Stennis, fresh from a deployment to Asia, including the South China Seas, and it was fighting talk as he praised pilots for having flown through "unofficially" declared Chinese air defence space.

"You said like hell ... this is all of our airspace, that's who we are, that's what America does."

With half of New Zealand's maritime trade passing through the South China Seas, the tensions there and how they are dealt with by China, the Philippines and US is directly our business.

The purpose of the Biden visit Downunder was to reinforce one message only - to the extent that the State Department minders provided no opportunities in either Australia or New Zealand for reporters' questions, lest he deviate from the one message: that the United States is a Pacific power and it is here to stay.

He repeated it in every appearance in New Zealand and in virtually every appearance in Australia. His mantra went something like this: "We are a Pacific power, we have always been a Pacific power, we are going nowhere, we mean what we say when we say we are rebalancing the Pacific."

Although it must be said that any bellicose nature of the message was somewhat softened by Biden's decision to bring his granddaughters with him rather than admirals and generals.

It must also be noted that while Biden says the US "is going nowhere", he cannot speak for what might happen in a Donald Trump Administration, and whether Obama's "rebalance" would remain at all.

The "rebalance" to the Asia Pacific is what used to be called the "pivot" until someone decided that that implied the US turning its back on others, so it was rebranded the "rebalance".

The US assertion of its place in Asia is across the political, trade and investment and defence spheres, and the US ship decision has to be seen in that context.

There is ongoing debate about the real intentions of the policy, and whether it is leading to greater tensions with China, even possibly to armed conflict.

If relations with China aren't complicated enough, the US and its other Nato allies have a dreadful relationship with Russia following the annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine.

The US' formal allies in the Asia Pacific, Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have commitment to the US by dint of their alliances. New Zealand as a partner, not an ally, will continue to judge its engagements involving the US from a more distant position.

While the resumption of US ship visits to New Zealand has been generally welcomed, the reality is that a closer friendship will complicate those judgments.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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