Robert Ayson: We must be canny when US calls

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President Obama's new year directive that the Pentagon focuses its resources on Asia does not mention New Zealand. Even Australia doesn't get a reference.

But part of Washington's plan is to do more with traditional allies in the region. That includes Australia. Another part is to work more closely with emerging partners. That's the category New Zealand now belongs to in US thinking. This should get us thinking about how we might respond.

We need first to understand the plan. The Obama Administration wants to fritter away less of its energies on long-term stabilisation efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rather than terrorists and insurgents, it sees its most formidable challenge coming from China. And with the need for budget cuts to reduce America's debt blowout, this means taking resources from elsewhere to sustain an American military focus on Asia.

Australia's answer to this situation was clear before Christmas. The agreement to station US forces in Australia means that Canberra's cards are already on the table. In almost any strategic competition between the US and China, Australia can be expected to side with its long-time ally.

A similar arrangement between the US and New Zealand is most unlikely. Our size, location and history all argue against it. But Washington still wants a closer relationship with us. That means building on last year's Wellington Declaration which emphasised our co-operation in the Pacific. This is just one part of the region where America has been concerned about China's growing influence.

New Zealand's relations with the US would not have got to this level without our commitment in Afghanistan. But this is precisely the type of expedition which Mr Obama wants the US to avoid as he moves resources from large land forces into the navy and air force he needs for the competition with China.

That's a challenge for us. Afghanistan has cost New Zealand lives and treasure. But it allowed us to build an American relationship without harming our valuable links in this region, including with China. In the future, however, good relations with the United States will increasingly depend on how willing we are to share America's goals in Asia.

Part of this is not hard. Our security interests, and the prosperity that a stable region helps sustain, depends on a favourable military balance in Asia. The US is the main contributor to that balance.

We should therefore continue to welcome America's interest and presence in our wider region, and to work with the US where our interests connect.

But we need to do this without giving the impression of being part of a US-led coalition against China.

This means remembering that sometimes we can get too close to one major power at the expense of our relations with another. That can be hard for New Zealanders because we tend to see co-operation as inherently promising. Especially if we view international politics as a patchwork of free trade agreements, closer is always better.

But foreign policy is played on many chessboards. There will be times when we need a bit of distance from Washington or China or other major players, to suit our overall needs.

Working with our other closer regional partners, including Australia and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, we need to build some alternatives to the view of the region where the US-China contest is the only game in town. That's the proposition lurking in Mr Obama's defence guidance. It is also the question that China likes to ask the region as well.

We should look beyond these crude bipolar lenses which cede too much influence to Washington and Beijing. Building relationships with other large countries such as India and Japan, and medium ones such as Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam, can give us a bit of the breathing space we need.

Some might think that Washington won't come calling on New Zealand because we are too small to matter.

In terms of our sheer military firepower that may be true. But politically we do matter in the region. New Zealand has carefully built up a reputation for independent thinking which others respect. We remain a bit of a catch.

In 2012 we will be commemorating with our American partners the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Marines in New Zealand during World War II. That's when our political leaders may need some especially good talking points to work from.

* Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University.

- NZ Herald

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