Saturday, May 25, 2024

Dr Oliver Hartwich: China's bullyboy tactics set to backfire with Wellington

Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong’s speech at the China Business Summit 2024 in Auckland on Monday was, at first glance, a typical diplomatic address. He extolled the strength of China’s economy, the benefits of bilateral trade, and the importance of the New Zealand-China relationship.

But beneath the polished veneer, a sterner message was lurking. Prime Minister Luxon spoke at the same event about the need for a “China And” strategy to diversify New Zealand’s economic partnerships and uphold security in the South China Sea. In light of Luxon’s address, the Ambassador’s speech took on a more pointed tone.

Wang firmly pushed back against “voices both inside and outside New Zealand” depicting China as a threat, insisting “there are neither historical grievances nor fundamental conflicts in interest between our two countries.” He criticised “groundless accusations” that could “erode the precious trust” underpinning bilateral ties.

Most strikingly, the Ambassador fired a shot across the bow of New Zealand’s potential involvement in the AUKUS security pact. Arguing that AUKUS was designed to “maintain US hegemony” and would trigger an arms race, Wang suggested that New Zealand joining AUKUS in any form would be tantamount to “joining a military alliance openly targeting other countries.”

While professing respect for New Zealand’s independent foreign policy, the ambassador urged Wellington to think twice before making any decisions on AUKUS. He warned of risks to “the healthy and stable development of our bilateral relations” and “the hard-won peace in the region and the world.”

The message was clear: stay away from AUKUS or face the consequences.

To seasoned observers, this was not a surprise. It fits a familiar pattern of Chinese pressure on smaller states to fall in line with Beijing’s strategic preferences. From punitive trade sanctions on Australia to ominous warnings to Lithuania about the consequences of expanding ties with Taiwan, China has not been shy about throwing its weight around. While the specific tactics vary, the underlying message is consistent - cross China’s red lines, and you will pay a price.

But in New Zealand’s case, such pressure tactics may be spectacularly backfiring.

Far from pushing New Zealand into strategic subservience, China’s increasingly assertive posture has had the opposite effect – it is driving Wellington ever more decisively into the arms of its traditional Western allies.

Since the election of the centre-right National-led government late last year, we have seen a sea change in New Zealand’s foreign policy orientation. After years of hedging and delicate balancing under the previous Labour government, Prime Minister Luxon has embarked on an unambiguous tilt towards the US, UK and Australia.

Its most prominent manifestation has been New Zealand’s openness to joining AUKUS Pillar 2 on advanced technology sharing. Despite its long-standing nuclear-free stance, Wellington has thrown open the door to participation in the arrangement, with PM Luxon calling it “a positive development to give stability and security in the Pacific region.”

Tellingly, Luxon has framed this shift not as a choice but as a strategic necessity, arguing that economic prosperity and security are now “very, very much interdependent.” In other words, New Zealand can no longer afford to sit on the fence as the regional order comes under strain.

This recalibration extends well beyond AUKUS. The Luxon government has moved swiftly to reinvigorate long-neglected partnerships, from elevating ties with Japan and South Korea to pursuing closer bilateral cooperation with the US, Australia, and India. The Prime Minister’s recent visits to Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, and Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ statements on the South China Sea, all point to a more strategically engaged New Zealand that is actively diversifying its regional relationships.

Even the rhetoric has shifted. Where the Ardern government emphasised the Pacific’s potential as a “region of opportunity”, the Luxon government has adopted a more hard-headed, strategically focused approach.

The government is prioritising partnerships with traditional allies, investing in defence capabilities, and speaking out more forcefully on regional security issues. These are all signals that New Zealand sees the Pacific not just as an economic opportunity, but as a strategic arena in which core interests and values are at stake.

New Zealand is not embracing AUKUS and its Western partners out of sentimentality or blind loyalty. It is acting out of a hard-headed assessment of its own national interests in the face of a perceived threat.

China’s growing assertiveness has fundamentally changed the strategic calculus for small states like New Zealand. Where once they could afford to be neutral, they now feel compelled to pick a side.

New Zealand is behaving not unlike a victim of schoolyard bullying. Faced with a powerful adversary intent on coercion, the natural response is to seek strength in numbers – to find allies who can help level the playing field.

That is precisely what New Zealand is doing by aligning more closely with the US-led Western bloc. It is signalling that it will not be cowed into submission, and that it is willing to push back against bullying by seeking support from friends.

Ironically, China’s own behaviour is reinforcing these reflexes. The more Beijing resorts to pressure tactics, the more it feeds the perception that it is a bully that needs to be stood up to – driving countries like New Zealand into the arms of its strategic rivals.

Ambassador Wang’s remarks on AUKUS may have been intended to draw a line in the sand. But they may have the opposite effect – guaranteeing a New Zealand that is more strategically aligned, militarily capable, and determined to defend its interests than ever before.

For a more constructive relationship to emerge, China will need to adjust its approach. By taking steps to reassure smaller states and rein in its worst impulses, it could create space for a healthier dynamic.

But if China continues to wield the stick instead of offering carrots, it may find that its coercive tactics only serve to unite its rivals and undermine its own long-term interests. In the high-stakes game of geopolitics, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative think tank. This article was first published HERE.


Anonymous said...

Yes interesting. I went to a speech by an economist earlier this week and he spoke about the need to uncouple ourselves from China and economically we are too reliant on China. Makes sense to explore other options for sure.

Anonymous said...

If there is any message out there it is surely this: NZ should, indeed must, redevelop its independent and self-sufficient capabilities. ‘The West’ looks increasingly like the Roman Empire of the period 400AD. Things are going downhill, not so slowly either. We have a lot going for us, but we need to be a United country, not divided by the accidents of our ancestry. And we need to be free of the appalling corruption now so evident in all of our National institutions. Hard to be confident eh?

Allan said...

So decoding minister Xiaolong's speech, "Butt out and let us take control of S.E. Asia and we'll keep buying your produce"

Anonymous said...

Crunch time for control in the Pacific is coming......
Watch events in Taiwan - maybe not even military intervention will be needed.

But wait - moving away from China may perturb Iwi. Under He Puapua, after they have redistributed and spent the assets of the 83% non -Maori, they may be counting on a deal with China to continue financing their control of Aotearoa.