NZ and USA: allies again?

by Robert Ayson / 17 January, 2013
Are New Zealand and the US allies again? America’s leading Asia policy official gives his view on the state of relations between the two countries.
photo Getty Images/Listener illustration

It’s not surprising that people often view the Obama Administration’s pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region in military terms. But that perception rankles with Kurt Campbell, America’s leading Asia policy official, who visited Wellington late last year. There has been “way too much focus on a couple of hundred marines at Darwin”, he insisted after strategic talks between New Zealand and American officials.

The Oxford-educated Campbell would say that. For the past four years he has been working for Hillary Clinton, the outgoing Secretary of State who has done so much to refashion America’s reputation in Asia through diplomatic means. There is an old saying that how you see the world depends on where you sit, and from the State Department’s perspective, diplomacy often comes before military might.

And Campbell does have a point. America’s “rebalancing”, as the pivot is now called in polite circles, is more than a shift in the Pentagon’s attention towards Asia. It’s not just a case of trying to get the US out of a difficult and costly nation-building exercise in Afghanistan. Perhaps even more significant was the decision early in the Obama presidency to get serious about Asia’s growing array of regional forums as part of what Campbell depicts as an “all-in across the board approach”.


This meant American leaders turning up in Southeast Asia to join the East Asia Summit, a talkfest rather than a military alliance. It has meant a stronger commitment to the economic side of Asia-Pacific affairs, including Washington’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, whose latest round took place in Auckland in early December.

That work has certainly paid off. Nearly every American relationship in Asia has improved in the past few years. But in the sweetest of ironies, the Obama Administration could not have done it without China. That’s exactly the sort of conclusion Campbell is keen to resist. Denying that the rebalancing is aimed at China, he insists that no country has done more to welcome and engage China on the international stage than the US.

Likewise he bristles at the slightest suggestion that the US is seeking in any way to contain Asia’s rising great power. That concept, Campbell argues, should be left behind where it belongs in the Cold War.

In those days, the US led a Western effort to confine a Soviet empire locked in its separate political and economic bloc. But all China’s neighbours want better relations with China and the United States does, too, he says. The “whole line of discussion” around containment is, in Campbell’s eyes, “rather simplistic and wrong”.

That’s a common refrain among American officials. But there are few all-or-nothing games in international politics, and from some vantage points America may be engaging China in one breath, then seeking a modicum of containment with the next.

Others may want a bit of containment, too. Japan, a close American ally, is stuck in a passionate territorial dispute with China. And few of China’s neighbours feel comfortable without a strong American presence in Asia – diplomatically, economically and militarily – which can help ward off the less-welcome outpourings of China’s growing heft.


This sentiment opened an Asian window of opportunity for Washington that the Obama team has been quick to climb through. The effort has not been a small one. Campbell is famous for marathon journeys into the region where sleep is a luxury. These mega-trips have extended more than once to New Zealand, a far-from-accidental stop on the crowded itinerary.

In fact, Campbell has been seeking to improve the US-New Zealand security relationship for more than a decade. When I first met him in 1999, he was trying to do this from the Pentagon, but in those days the ground was not nearly as fertile as it has become. A few years later, things really began to move, helped along by New Zealand’s commitment in Afghanistan, a factor Campbell is quick to acknowledge. That momentum, which was evident during the closing stages of the Clark Government and the George W Bush administration, has accelerated rapidly in the era of John Key and Barack Obama.

This history means the US-New Zealand security relationship was already improving well before the rebalancing, a point worth noting to Chinese officials who sometimes wonder whether New Zealand policy is being driven by the pivot. In Campbell’s estimation, New Zealand and the US are simply now doing the things normal partners do. And he insists America is not trying to draw a wedge between Wellington and Beijing: “We hope and expect that New Zealand has a good relationship with China,” he asserts.

He also turns the stream of important Chinese visitors to New Zealand into an advantage for Washington. New Zealand, he says, has been a “site of choice” where China’s leading officials can work with the senior leaders of another country and “ideas and approaches can be tested”. As a result, the US can learn a lot from New Zealand about China, he says. That is surely one explanation for Washington’s enthusiasm for an ongoing strategic dialogue with us.


And that’s not all. In 2010, Clinton signed the Wellington Declaration, promoting US-New Zealand co-operation in the South Pacific. At about the same time she signalled that intelligence co-operation had returned to a level not seen since the mid-1980s break-up over port visits by US ships. Just a few months ago, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman signed the Washington Declaration, which emphasises military cooperation between the two countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Leon Panetta, his co-signatory, then visited Auckland, becoming the first American Secretary of Defense to arrive in New Zealand in 30 years. Campbell’s appreciation of how far things have come is succinct and direct: “In many ways we are as close as two nations can be.”

This leads to the obvious question: are New Zealand and the US allies once again? Campbell is keen to dodge this particular bullet and all that it implies. To talk of alliances, as opposed to friendships and partnerships, buys into unwanted “theological debates”, he says. We should instead be focusing on the practical steps and the shared principles that characterise the closeness of the relationship.


And what of the alliance acronym that New Zealand ministers don’t say much about? He is blunt: “There is no discussion about the recreation of Anzus.”

Although a full Anzus reconciliation is not on the cards, a pattern of trilateral cooperation is still emerging. New Zealand forces will observe the major US-Australia combined exercise (Talisman Sabre) later this year and will participate directly next time around. Clinton took part in a trilateral ministerial discussion at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands.

But Campbell is still keen to shift the gaze wider. “Most of the discussion,” he says, “is about a wider range of countries.” There are other players in Southeast Asia, North Asia and elsewhere in the region with which New Zealand, Australia and the US all want to work.

This also applies to New Zealand’s neighbourhood. His designation for the past four years has been Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and he has paid special attention to the South Pacific. This focus is one of the aspects of the Obama and Clinton approach about which he feels proudest. And Campbell reacts once again to the notion that the rationale is a power struggle: there is a “much broader agenda that has nothing to do with China”, he insists.

As for the recently announced water project in Rarotonga in which New Zealand and China will be working with the Cook Islands, the US would consider something similar, he says. “Working with China in the Pacific is an animating feature of our approach.”

New Zealand is clearly part of the picture. Because of our participation in both Asian and Pacific multilateralism, New Zealand has “unique convening power”, he notes. Asked whether there is concrete rather than just rhetorical evidence of America’s intentions in the South Pacific, Campbell shoots back with a long list of points. Two years ago, 50 senior American officials attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland. Four years before that, Campbell says, fewer than five US officials had done so. A USAID office was back in the region. Washington’s commitment was also evident through the Pacific Partnership humanitarian exercise, to which New Zealand sent the multi-role HMNZS Canterbury early in 2012. And so on.

However, voices can still be heard wondering how deep that Pacific commitment goes and how long it will last. And it is not just in New Zealand’s neck of the woods where those questions are being asked. Asia is still not immune from uncertainty about America’s staying power, especially when people have one eye on a growing China.


That may be the rub with a rebalancing strategy that focuses so much on America’s regional relationships at a time when its national resources are stretched. But Campbell has an answer: “Those who have bet on American decline have lost a lot of money.”

Among those risk-taking punters was Campbell’s doctoral supervisor, Hedley Bull. In the early 1970s, the Australian scholar was exaggerating America’s pullback from Asia after the Vietnam War. As we now know, the US never left the region. But Bull nonetheless drew a fascinating conclusion that may ring bells today: Asia’s order could no longer depend as much as it had on American power, but would rest on a great power equilibrium in which China, Japan and Russia were also involved.

This is one of the approaches that New Zealand should be bearing in mind as it works out how close it should get to the US, China or any other major power in tomorrow’s Asia. That’s a bit of an uncharted universe for us, existing as we do in a wider region that has come to appreciate Western strategic influence.

Campbell is also about to encounter a strange environment. He may find himself with a tiny bit of free time as he leaves the State Department for new horizons. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll turn back to his Oxford supervisor’s old writings to see the “animating features” – a term he often uses – that may be coming next in Asia.

Robert Ayson is director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies and the author of Hedley Bull and the Accommodation of Power, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
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