Does Aotearoa New Zealand need to “pick a side” in the growing face-off between the US and China in the Pacific? Or are we better off keeping our independence; basing our foreign policy on principle and our whakapapa with our Pacific neighbours, rather than the cold demands of realpolitik?
I was in Tonga recently, and I had the opportunity to talk about international relations with some Pacific political leaders. Both China and the US have been displaying a lot more interest in Tonga and its neighbours, recently. Embassies are opening, aid is flowing.
It was explained to me that the American strategy is to “contain” China within what’s called the “first island chain” bordered by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo, while the rest of the world-ocean remains an American lake. Currently, America is the only country that can project massive amounts of military power around the world, and it wants it to stay that way.
China wants to be able to extend its influence further and break those American shackles. One way would be to try to retake control of Taiwan, which it still considers a “renegade province”, not an independent country. A less bloody approach is to make deals to make allies and establish military bases in other countries outside the first island chain.
The Pacific Islands would be ideal for China’s purposes. America knows it. So there’s a race for influence.
It’s all very... 19th century. Back to when European powers were dividing up Africa and the Pacific, treating countries like chess pieces, and the UK and France were trying to contain Germany.
Surely, in the 21st century, with our globally interconnected environment, economy and cultures, we have moved past old-fashioned, great power games.
My impression is Pacific leaders see these moves with some bemusement. They’re not the simple island folk the superpower diplomats might think they are. Their ancestors went through one round of colonisation not so long ago. They see this neo-colonialism for what it is. They’re not going to be used and sell their values.
This is where Aotearoa comes in. We are still the most important link for many Pacific nations. We are bound by whakapapa - both the ancient links of our Polynesian ancestors who settled here and the new links of Pacific immigration.
We are best when we are an honest, independent partner with our Pacific neighbours. Not viewing the Islands as part of “our backyard”, but viewing the people of the Pacific as our whānau.
So, I was disappointed in the Government’s new Defence Policy Strategy Statement that says China’s “assertive pursuit of its strategic objectives” in the Pacific is a primary threat to Aotearoa. That and the references to “rules-based order” (America’s term for the American-led world order, even if, ironically, the US doesn’t actually sign up to many of those international rules) were clearly putting Aotearoa into the American camp in the superpower face-off.
Of course, defence analysts are always going to be citing “threats” that require more defence spending, and more contracts for defence analysts. And the Opposition is gladly joining in. National talked about doubling defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP. Act committed a hefty $2 billion a year increase for defence in its alternative Budget - to go on missiles and ships, funded by cutting pensions, winter energy payments and emissions reductions.
It is strange to see Labour adopting similar positioning on the need to prepare for conflict. Helen Clark called it right when she said the Defence Strategy risked abandoning our independent foreign policy.
I much prefer Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s approach. In a recent speech, she said, “The international environment may be more complicated, it does not represent ‘a new Cold War’ or require binary choices... Alongside a well-established Western viewpoint of foreign policy, we are also drawing on Māori perspectives to enable a richer understanding of the shifting environment in our region. This approach aligns us closely with interests in our Pacific region, fostering a stronger resonance with our Pacific neighbours.
“Shared values across the Pacific such as whanaungatanga (connection), kotahitanga (common purpose), kaitiakitanga (stewardship) and manaakitanga (reciprocity) exemplify partnerships that are substantive, reciprocal, enduring – where respect for mana is paramount – as is sovereignty.”
This is the Pacific way. It is that attitude, of mutual respect and common purpose, that is Aotearoa’s biggest asset. That is what our Pacific whānau want from Aotearoa – they want us to be a country that will help when we can and stand up for their independence, not join in neo-colonial games of exploitation.
Let’s not join in the sabre-rattling and the spend-up on more weapons to point at each other. Let’s, instead, demonstrate a better path, of partnership, in our Pacific neighbourhood.
Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a commentator, blogger and former Labour Party activist.