Stark choice between principles and interests
Former foreign service officer who served as head of the Prime Minister’s Department and Secretary of Defence
New Zealand has prided itself on its moral foreign policy, believing that as a small country without vested interests it can speak up for decency and a rules-based world order. We have not faced many challenges to this view. Our quarrel with the United States over nuclear ship visits risked only minor retaliation: our trade actually increased during the dispute. Now, China’s current policies suggest that we will before long face a much bigger struggle between our beliefs and our income.
For decades China’s economic growth has been a source of admiration to the rest of the world. Though no libertarian, Deng Xiaoping grasped in the 1980s that Communist doctrine had to be jettisoned to preserve Communist rule. The dizzying economic growth that followed gave a new legitimacy to party rule, but Deng’s wise instinct was to keep it quiet and emphasise China’s desire to be a good international citizen.
Then in 2012 China acquired a leader who abandoned Deng’s caution and embarked on a series of bold and indeed aggressively nationalist policies. Under Xi Jinping, China began to look and behave like the Central State of imperial days, the government seeming to regard itself as much above international law and practice as it was above domestic law.
In foreign affairs China moved to reassert its ancient dominance in Southeast Asia, seizing and militarising the islands and sandbanks of the South China Sea in defiance of international law.
Countries such as Australia, and those further afield, received lofty rebukes for offending Chinese views, reminiscent of the ‘‘Tremble and Obey’’ tone of imperial proclamations.
All this has meant China’s newly acquired reputation has begun to sour, at least in the West.
The growing international uneasiness is still masked by an understandable hesitancy about the costs of speaking out. The pattern is unfolding but the tipping point is yet to come.
The trigger, I think, will be Hong Kong. Deng’s brilliant solution to the difficulties of absorbing the territory back into the Chinese family after a century and a half of British rule, ‘‘One Country, Two Systems’’, is no longer acceptable in Beijing.
Xi’s centralising nationalism means overriding the lawful freedoms of the territory’s inhabitants. The result is continuing trouble among people used to something better. But the pressure is unrelenting.
We could not be comfortable ignoring the wreck of Hong Kong’s liberties, but there is an even larger issue at stake.
The freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong’s people are guaranteed at least until 2047 by an international treaty signed by China. After some years of disregarding some of its provisions President Xi has now publicly repudiated the treaty itself, declaring his government is no longer bound to observe it.
This casts a long shadow. New Zealand, as a small country whose own constitution rests on a treaty, has always been concerned to uphold the treaties and agreements on which a peaceful world order depends. If Beijing can disregard a treaty that has become inconvenient, it raises the question whether China’s word can now be trusted on other matters.
No-one is in any hurry to point this out to Beijing. Britain, the other signatory of the Hong Kong treaty, has found nothing to say about its repudiation, signalling the extent to which its trade with China is weighing down the scales.
The same concerns loom large in the minds of all other countries benefiting from China’s vast international trade. When so much business is at stake and Beijing has made it clear that it will ruthlessly retaliate for any offence, why express views unwelcome to China?
New Zealand is proud of its trade agreement which has made China our largest trading partner. Before the Covid crisis, it was our biggest market for dairy products and forestry, our fastest-growing tourist market and largest source of international students, and amounts to $32 billion of two-way trade.
But trade agreements will be no more safe from Beijing’s displeasure than other treaties. Canada found its canola oil exports halted when a Vancouver court decision angered China.
We have every reason to be cautious therefore, but at some point the problem of Hong Kong cannot be ducked. The party cannot accept the loss of face in backing down over the protests and, if the unrest continues, it will at some point feel compelled to crack down and use force.
If it does, we face a dilemma. We have liked to emphasise the moral basis of our foreign policy, arguing that as a small but internationally minded country we can ‘‘speak truth to power’’, upholding the rule of law with a freedom that may be denied to larger nations.
Now we face a stark choice between our national principles and our national interests. Do we call on China to respect its treaty obligations towards Hong Kong, and accept the probable consequences for our income and our businessmen, or do we stay silent and take refuge in saying that the issue is part of China’s internal affairs?
The call we make will not only decide our relationship with China, but the shape of our foreign policy for years to come.
We have liked to emphasise the moral basis of our foreign policy, arguing that ... we can ‘‘speak truth to power’’.