Could New Zealand serve as an ‘honest broker’ to repair ties between China and the West?
- Fresh off its upgraded Beijing trade deal, Wellington looks uniquely positioned to help defuse tensions between China and nations such as the US and Australia
- Experts say New Zealand has the credentials to be a fair intermediary, but others point to ‘cold-war thinking’ getting in the way
Amid the fallout from protracted trade wars and political conflicts between China, the United States and its allies, there stands a bright outlier.
As the only Five Eyes member largely free of conflict with China, New Zealand appears to be in a favourable position to act as an “honest broker”, said Tan See Seng, a professor of international relations in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“The question [of New Zealand’s position as a broker] is very much in line with Wellington’s recent offer to be the middle person for nuclear disarmament, in view of [US President Joe] Biden’s purported interest to that end,” Tan noted.
“So, yes, New Zealand seems well placed to play an honest-broker role between the major powers in select issue areas, and trade and climate change are likely the appropriate ones, given Wellington’s obvious strengths in those.”
New Zealand’s credentials bode well for the country to serve as a fair intermediary, Tan added, in particular because the country is not seen as tying its own policy priorities to those of the United States.
Wellington’s independent foreign policy is also closely tied to its nuclear-free stance, including its willingness to speak out on nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1970s and ’80s and its refusal to allow US nuclear-powered warships to dock in the country in 1985, which ultimately led to New Zealand’s suspension from the ANZUS Treaty and a temporary diplomatic rift with traditional allies Australia and the US.
And Ardern’s global standing helps, Tan added.
However, New Zealand still needs to earn the trust of the new Biden administration.
“There’s nothing to prevent NZ from offering its services in brokerage, and it should. But it needs to walk into it with eyes wide open,” Tan said.
In New Zealand, the views were split. An overarching concern, similar to Tan’s, exists over the diplomatically precarious nature of a brokering role.
University of Waikato senior lecturer in international law Alexander Gillespie maintains that New Zealand holds a unique position to broker peace, but said it is essential that the country does not act so much as a mediator but rather as a facilitator of events that will get countries’ leaders “in a room together at a neutral venue”.
“It’s not about one large goal, like what to do with Taiwan, it’s about a process, a neutral venue, and starting to talk to, rather than at, each other,” he said. “Fundamentally, I do not see China and the Five Eyes group as enemies. I see disagreements and the need to find neutral ground, to reset the relationship, and to put it all back on a positive path.”
More “benign” issues such as climate change and post-coronavirus rebuilding could foster some cohesion. Even an international gathering over the conservation of a New Zealand bird, the bar-tailed godwit, could get the ball rolling, Gillespie added.
But others were less sanguine.
Stephen Jacobi, former executive director of the New Zealand China Council and founder of the New Zealand International Business Forum, put it simply: “We need to manage our relations with larger parties very carefully.”
“But New Zealand is a small country with its own interests to advance and protect.”
In a phone call afterward with his Australian counterpart, Dan Tehan, O’Connor said the “Australia-China relationship would always be a matter for China and Australia”.
“New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, which allows us to maintain both our closest partnership with Australia and a mature relationship with China,” O’Connor said.
Grant Duncan, a specialist in political theory and public policy from New Zealand’s Massey University, said O’Connor’s public comments to Australia were likely unnecessary, especially since New Zealand likes to view itself as an honest broker in the region.
“If China casts New Zealand as the good partner to cast shame onto Australia, then that’s divisive, and not helpful,” he said.
In Australia, however, former diplomat Bruce Haigh said New Zealand has shown it can take the lead in resolving conflicts, with the courage to exercise its views independently, as opposed to Australia appearing at times to be taking instructions from Washington.
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But this was where things could get tricky for New Zealand, or any other country in a similar situation, as it could result in its position in the Five Eyes alliance and with China altered, said Wang Gungwu, a long-respected historian on Sino-Southeast Asian relations.
“New Zealand’s good intentions would be appreciated to begin with, but when it comes down to it, I am not sure it would make any difference to the confrontational approach that has dogged us for too long,” he said. “The weak link is that it is one of the Five Eyes and may not be seen as really neutral.”
Wang’s perception that the doggedly stiff relations between China and the US could waste New Zealand’s efforts was echoed by Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in the US.
He said recent comments by Biden’s foreign policy team suggest that the new administration will carry on with Trump’s uncompromising policies toward China.
“So, it may be wishful thinking that relations will drastically improve under Biden,” Zhu said. “The US and China know each other’s ‘core interests’ or bottom lines well, so there is no need for a mediator to bring the two together. What is lacking is the political will and political wisdom.
“New Zealand or Singapore or any other country, no matter how well-intentioned, is not going to change the rigid, cold-war style of thinking of some countries.”
The hard-nosed approach, now well in motion, means New Zealand, despite its credentials, would be best advised to steer clear of being a conflict intermediary, said Huang Kwei-Bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University who has analysed third-party mediations, including the Wang-Koo talks that Singapore helped with.
It would be better, Huang said, for New Zealand to take the more subtle approach of showing by example the benefits of a good relationship with China, such as the increasing of people-to-people exchanges and of skilled Chinese migration.
“It just needs to demonstrate the mutual benefit resulting from its effort,” he said.
Bucknell’s Zhu said that with the US’ China discourse being dominated by China hawks in Washington, a bottom-up approach on both sides, involving grass-roots moderate groups, rather than a top-down approach, could be better at improving relations between the two superpowers.
Ultimately, if New Zealand or any other country wanted to contribute to brokering an easing of tensions, pursuing quiet diplomacy would be best, Wang added.
“Something dramatic is attractive, but unless that gets quick tangible results, it would end up going nowhere,” he said.