With the new AUKUS pact on one side and China on the other, New Zealand faces a complicated security and trade balancing act. By Jane Clifton.
Australia's new defence strategy is a reminder that some political instincts go right back to the playground. The big kids are over there playing with their cool new toy, and the little kid, New Zealand, is left snivelling on the sidelines.
Still, when the toy is a nuclear submarine set, and some of the other big kids are ready to have a serious punch-up over it, being the snotty little no-mates is the safest role.
Reflexive umbrage here – including from former foreign minister Winston Peters – that the Australian Government barely briefed, let alone consulted, its nearest neighbour and formal ally about the new "AUKUS" axis with the United States and Britain was somewhat misplaced. Australia is in a different physical and strategic environment to New Zealand, and the two countries' defence and foreign policies have diverged for years.
Australia is now, more than ever, in a position New Zealand should not envy.
Even putting aside the nuclear-powered dimension to the submarine deal, Australia's increasingly belligerent approach remains a cause of apprehension in New Zealand's political and bureaucratic realm.
Only the recklessly gung-ho could rejoice that the new arms pact came as Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton again talked almost casually about future war with China. Decades of painstaking global diplomacy have gone into helping ensure the giant panda doesn't morph from vegan to predator-carnivore. Australia's political rhetoric practically dares it to.
From a New Zealand perspective, the crushing coincidence was that AUKUS debuted the same week China expressed formal interest in joining the 11-nation trans-Pacific free-trade pact, the wordy Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Although Chinese membership is still in the same misty, far-distant category as a cure for the common cold and the gracious retirement of Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt, it was a huge sign of progress. In making that application, China showed it was willing to at least consider – more like, consider one day considering, if we really insisted – massive compromises in the way it conducts itself. CPTPP membership necessitates countries complying with fair-trade rules, which would obviate China's massively dominant state corporations, and its – in our opinion – oppressively intrusive data collection.
In layperson's terms, it would have to stop spying, stop oppressing, stop cross-subsidising and apply rigorously humanitarian labour laws. This will be a long time coming, to say the least.
Meanwhile, the divide has widened. This side of the Tasman, China is treated as a valued trade partner and potentially closer trade ally, whom we regularly nag about human rights. On the other side, it's treated as a budding enemy.
AUKUS may freight extra trouble Australia's way from further north. Its decision to buy US-designed submarines bilked France, from whom it had earlier agreed to buy.
Naturally, the French Government went the full gilets jaunes and hinted at trade sanctions. At least one European Union (EU) luminary seconded that motion. Various Euro grandees also rounded on Britain, calling it a lickspittle of the US. Britain said Europe was just jealous. And overnight, the whole post-Brexit spite-fest ramped up a notch: more Irish border anxiety, more supply-chain brinkmanship and lashings of jingoistic fear and loathing all round.
Provided the new pact doesn't downgrade our Five Eyes security intelligence access, it's unlikely to change foreign-policy parameters here profoundly. Australia and the US will doubtless press for more defence spending here, but that pressure is eternal.
In a desire to seek silver linings, trade analysts suggest New Zealand could benefit as China, the EU and Indonesia may demonstrate their disgruntlement at AUKUS by pointedly favouring this country over Australia in future trade-liberalisation agreements.
We at least escaped what may be the most humiliating dimension: the branding buzzkill of President Joe Biden, in a globally televised three-way linkup, forgetting the name of our prime minister. Australia's Scott Morrison was presented to the world as "pal" and "that fella down under". Given an extra leader for Biden to remember, Jacinda Ardern might have been "whatshername".
It could be worse
These developments at least gave the National Party something to grumble about other than Covid management and the media's coverage of it. National said it was unsatisfactory that an "ANZUKUS" version wasn't even considered, but perhaps sensing an overwhelming absence of desire here for submarines, nuclear or otherwise, it quickly fell back to the ritual required of all low-polling Oppositions: performative denial. Normally, this takes the form of affirmations such as "I always support the leader" – from those who would rather support a different one, and "the leader is doing a great job" – from those who, although well aware the leader is not doing a great job, fear their personal ranking would suffer were another leader to take over.
Things are so bad there is now a new, somewhat resigned affirmation. "The leader has got a really hard job to do," said one MP after another of Judith Collins, while pretending not to notice numbers being desultorily counted towards the restoration of Simon Bridges. In the automatic etiquette of leadership wobbles, he insists he is "not seeking" his old job back. He may not be, but it's always safest in such situations to assume the politician concerned would auction their granny and throw in her walking frame to get the gig were it offered.
Among other contenders, Chris Bishop still has the demeanour of a spanked puppy since Collins demoted him for a minor social-media indiscretion, suggesting he hasn't yet developed the chops for the big job. Christopher Luxon, who lucked into leaving Air New Zealand just before Covid and is hardly going to rush to the helm of another becalmed entity, has a fail-safe repellent technique when the subject comes up. He starts banging on about Three Waters reforms until everyone gives up and goes home. It doesn't take long.
Having declared that any National leader commanding less than 35 per cent party support should resign, Collins, presiding over 21 per cent, says she won't "ever" quit.
However, despite her many missteps, one vital statistic may protect her: roughly four out of five leadership changes in the past two Oppositions made them less popular. Even at this low ebb, the devil you know is statistically safer.
Rather like those old provincial slogans, such as "Hamilton: more than you expect", Collins' brand is "National: remember, it could be even worse".