Aus­tralia-China co­nun­drum


Cal­en­dar Girls took cen­tre stage at Kapiti Play­house in Ruahine St. Para­pa­raumu.

‘‘Sec­u­lar cathe­drals’’ is the ti­tle Ell­wood uses when de­scrib­ing the country’s lit­tle and not so lit­tle per­for­mance spa­ces, spa­ces where ac­tors, mu­si­cians and tal­ented mem­bers of our bloom­ing film in­dus­try blos­som, earn­ing for New Zealand an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion de­served and proudly en­joyed by us all.

On An­zac Day, we tend to look back warmly at the mil­i­tary links be­tween this country and Aus­tralia. Yet in fu­ture, this re­la­tion­ship may not be quite so straight­for­ward.

In a White Pa­per, Aus­tralia re­cently out­lined a mas­sive pro­gramme of $A189 bil­lion in new de­fence spend­ing over the next 10 years. With­out nam­ing China, the White Pa­per clearly painted Bei­jing as the emerg­ing mil­i­tary threat in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. This poses a diplo­matic chal­lenge for New Zealand.

Our own De­fence White Pa­per is due any day now. Some­how, we will have to sat­isfy the ex­pec­ta­tions of our clos­est mil­i­tary part­ner (Aus­tralia) with­out of­fend­ing our prime trad­ing part­ner (China).

The niceties of that bal­anc­ing act will ag­gra­vate a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem – do­mes­ti­cally – for the Govern­ment.

Es­sen­tially, the Key Govern­ment has to jus­tify New Zealand’s own planned spend-up on new frigates, mil­i­tary re­con­nais­sance air­craft and cargo planes etc.

Ex­perts es­ti­mate this will cost about $NZ11 bil­lion over the next decade.

The splurge on new mil­i­tary hard­ware is oc­cur­ring at a time when the Govern­ment is dras­ti­cally skimp­ing on the likes of hip oper­a­tions, men­tal health ser­vices and the ed­u­ca­tion sup­port re­quired by spe­cial needs chil­dren.

Po­lit­i­cally or morally, can such pri­or­i­ties be jus­ti­fied?

Be­cause we need to woo China as a trad­ing part­ner, New Zealand can’t even sug­gest to the vot­ing pub­lic that Bei­jing could be a de­vel­op­ing mil­i­tary threat in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, as­sum­ing such a fear was cred­i­ble.

Dur­ing peace­time, trade im­per­a­tives al­ways do tend to in­hibit any govern­ment’s abil­ity to hold an open de­bate on de­fence.

The new White Pa­per is not the only fo­rum for such a de­bate.

To some ob­servers, China’s vir­tual an­nex­a­tion of a few con­tested is­lands in the South China Sea are a sign of its bur­geon­ing mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion along sea lanes that carry an es­ti­mated $US4 tril­lion in in­ter­na­tional trade an­nu­ally.

United States pres­i­den­tial con­tender Don­ald Trump has ac­cused China of build­ing ‘‘a mil­i­tary fortress the likes of which the world has never seen’’ on those rocky out­crops.

In fact, some­thing con­sid­er­ably less than the Death Star is un­der con­struc­tion.

Though China’s ac­tions have been provoca­tive, they also seem to be driven by eco­nomic mo­tives – to ex­ploit un­der­wa­ter en­ergy re­serves – rather than by a de­sire to ex­tend China’s mil­i­tary force pro­jec­tion.

Re­lax, ev­ery­one. In a speech in China last Septem­ber, De­fence Min­is­ter Gerry Brown­lee de­clared that ‘‘We do not ex­pect the South Pa­cific will face an ex­ter­nal mil­i­tary threat’’.

Brown­lee also called China a ‘‘strate­gic part­ner’’ and praised our ‘‘Five Year En­gage­ment Plan with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army’’.

In his speech, Brown­lee tip­toed around the South China Sea is­sue, call­ing on ‘‘all claimant states to take steps to re­duce ten­sions’’ within the frame­work of in­ter­na­tional law.

Ul­ti­mately, Brown­lee claimed: ‘‘We do not see our de­fence re­la­tion­ships with the United States and China as mu­tu­ally exclusive.’’

Given such warm sen­ti­ments, how can the Govern­ment pro­ceed to jus­tify its planned spend­ing spree on mil­i­tary hard­ware? On An­zac Day th­ese may per­haps be use­ful ques­tions to ask.

How do we en­vis­age our fu­ture role in a re­gional force pro­jec­tion part­ner­ship with Aus­tralia, one con­ceived to counter a sup­posed threat from China?

Talk­ing pol­i­tics

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