How should New Zealand tackle rising tensions in Asia-Pacific and Europe?

by Robert Patman / 18 November, 2017

 A protestor in the Philippines holds a sign calling for China to leave disputed waters of the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images

It's time for the big powers to get over their great power rivalries when it comes to international disputes. And New Zealand has got a role to play in helping them do that.

For a relatively small but active global player, New Zealand can't be indifferent to major security challenges in the Asia-Pacific and Europe.

In recent years, these regions have witnessed a growing tension between deepening globalization – a process powered by revolutionary changes in communication and information technologies that have made states more interdependent and more vulnerable – and the revival of great power rivalry which assumes that the capacity of sovereign states to determine events remains undimmed.

In the Asia-Pacific, there are significant differences over territory and resources. China claims sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands controlled in the East China Sea by Japan, and is also engaged in a territorial dispute with Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam regarding ownership of the Spratly Islands, a group of islands located in the South China Sea.

South China Sea squabbles

Since 2013, China has engaged in Island building at seven disputed features in the Spratlys; declared a Special Air Defense Zone hundreds of miles into the East China Sea; and in 2016 rejected an international tribunal’s ruling on Beijing’s South China Sea claims.

Not only does this region have one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, involving international trade estimated to be worth over $5 trillion annually, but it also has large natural gas and oil deposits.

While taking no position on the competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, both the Obama and Trump administrations have pledged to uphold international law and conducted naval exercises close to the artificial islands to demonstrate freedom of navigation. Such exercises were condemned by China’s as illegal and a threat to regional peace.

Relations between China and the US have also affected by North Korea’s aggressive nuclear proliferation programme. Although both the US and China have agreed in principle that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons, they have largely failed to agree on how to implement this common goal.

Meanwhile, the deployment of the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea in 2016 has prompted strong opposition from China and Russia, and contributed to heightened tensions in the region.

A woman walks past a vocational school damaged by shellfire the previous night in Donetsk, November 6, 2017. Photo / Getty Images

Frosty relations return to Europe

In Europe, the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine in recent years has generated the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West in the post-Cold War era. After annexing Crimea in March 2014 and then actively supporting armed separatists in the eastern part of the Ukraine, Putin’s Russia has been subjected to several rounds of international sanctions from the US and the EU.

The Putin government retaliated with sanctions of its own against a number of Western countries, declared NATO was a threat to its national security and claimed the US had engineered the Ukraine crisis to extend its global dominance.

Altogether, around 10,090 people have been killed, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April 2014 and Russia has paid a huge economic price for supporting the rebels.  

However, it would be wrong to see the conflicts in Europe and Asia-Pacific as simply marking the return of traditional great power politics.

A return to the good ol' days of might is right? Definitely not

First, China’s hardline approach to the South China Sea disputes has alarmed many of Beijing’s neighbours in the region and provided a key stimulus for both the Obama and Trumps administration to reinvigorate the already strong influence of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region.

Instead of securing China’s hegemony in Asia, Beijing’s muscular approach toward the South China Sea dispute could prompt a regional backlash and undermine the impact of any territorial gains made.

Second, fears of a great power clash in relation the nuclear crisis in North Korea are exaggerated. Neither the US or China can resolve this crisis unilaterally. Military threats by the Trump administration are just not credible. The US cannot attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities by conventional or nuclear bombardment without risking the lives of 25 million residents in the area of Seoul.

China can't continue to provide a life-support system for Kim Jong-un's regime without boosting America's alliances with Japan and South Korea. Photo / Getty Images

For its part, China cannot continue to provide a life-support system for a Kim Jong-un regime without boosting America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, and undermining China’s own diplomatic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Third, Putin’s policy towards the Ukraine has been a strategic disaster for Russia. Since 2014, the value of the rouble has virtually halved against the US dollar, inflation has increased dramatically, more $170 billion of foreign capital has left Moscow, and Russia has had little or no economic growth during the conflict.

Moreover, NATO has actively strengthened its presence around Ukraine with the net result that the Putin regime has been left geo-politically more isolated in Europe than it was before Moscow intervened in Ukraine.

What can New Zealand do?

What does all this mean for New Zealand? It should be emphasized that New Zealand has a big stake in regional stability in both the Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Today, 14 of New Zealand’s top 20 export markets are in the Asia Pacific, and two of its major export markets are in China and the US respectively. Altogether about 70% of New Zealand’s trade and investment occurs within the Asia-Pacific region.

At the same time, the EU is the third largest trading partner for New Zealand and in 2016 it accounted for nearly 12% of New Zealand’s exports.

New Zealand’s capacity to manage the diplomatic challenges presented by security problems in Asia-Pacific and Europe is certainly limited.

Wellington does not share the worldviews of the Trump administration, Xi Jinping government or the Putin regime.

Like many small and medium-sized states in the international system, New Zealand has a clear national interest in upholding goals as a rules-based international order, multilateral diplomacy, human rights and the expansion of free trade.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at APEC. Photo / Getty Images

And it is important during a time of international transition that New Zealand continues to firmly and clearly champion these goals.  

Former Prime Minister John Key did question the wisdom of China’s approach to the South China Sea disputes during a visit to Beijing in 2015, and was told to mind his own business.

At the same time, New Zealand has repeatedly stressed the necessity of using diplomacy and UNSC sanctions to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis and has publicly endorsed the approach of Germany’s Angela Merkel in this regard.

As for the Ukraine conflict, Winston Peters, the new New Zealand Foreign Minister, recently muddied the waters somewhat by floating the idea of restarting FTA talks with Russia, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indicated that nothing would be done to jeopardise the FTA with the EU.

It may take a long time for the great powers to finally recognise the limitations of their role in the 21st century, but it is up to other members of the international community, including New Zealand, to accelerate this learning process by making clear that the world is now too interconnected and too interdependent for unilateral solutions to be applied to what are, by definition, international security problems.

Robert G. Patman is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand



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