Katherine Ellena is a Research Associate with the US Naval Postgraduate School and a former New Zealand diplomat. The views expressed here are hers alone.
Two milestones occurred in New Zealand in the last two months with little fanfare, but with interesting implications. Firstly, in April, China overtook Australia as New Zealand's largest export market. Then in May, New Zealand and the US held the largest and warmest partnership forum since the rupture of the ANZUS alliance in 1985. Speaking during the forum, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randy Schriver called the US-NZ relationship 'an alliance in all but name'.
While both events, taken independently, have positive repercussions for New Zealand, taken together they reveal something else: that we have well and truly hitched our wagon to China for our economic prosperity and the US for our national security.
That this has not been widely remarked upon as something extraordinary is a sign of just how comfortable we have become with a toehold in both the East and West. It bolsters our solidifying image as an Asia Pacific nation with a European heritage, and confirms our self-styled independent foreign policy credentials.
Yet for all our pride at our pragmatic, independent foreign policy – and I say that as a believer – we sometimes neglect to acknowledge that the luxury of having it is not all of our own making, and that despite our independence and geographical isolation, we do not operate in a vacuum or ceteris paribus, with all things being equal. The former head of New Zealand's communications intelligence agency put it bluntly recently when he said 'we are a democratic, free country because of others, not because of us. That's the way it is when you're a small country.'
In an interdependent world, we must have fingers in different pies. But as a trade-dependent nation we can't be naïve about the risks. Trading partners come to the table with very different objectives, some of them entirely unrelated to trade.
New Zealanders take pride in operating on good faith, with the belief that this can reduce risk, bridge divides, and invite good faith in return. New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully hinted at this recently with regard to China, suggesting that 'we do not try to paper over differences in our perspectives...we discuss them openly and honestly – but respectfully and constructively.'
That is all very well while the sun shines over Beijing, but if it sets over the South China Sea, where will New Zealand owe its allegiance?
We make much of our great relationship with China, and I am all for developing relationships to build confidence and prevent conflict. There is also truth in the assertion that as a small, independent country, there may be some instances where we can do things that the US cannot, and in that sense we may be more beneficial to the US as a 'good friend' than an 'ally'.
We are small, benign, forthright and even-handed. This is all true. But these strengths can turn to vulnerabilities when maneuvered into the crosshairs of power. Relationships between states are not the same as those between individuals. States are usually more self-interested, and if the offensive realists are to be believed, great powers will always look to gain power over rivals to ensure survival, with the latest iteration playing out across the divide that New Zealand has straddled.
We are right to champion regional economic integration in the hope that this can balance great power politics in our backyard, but at the same time, we have traded our way in deep with China to where integration looks a little like dependence. Unless New Zealand can more strategically diversify its assets to hedge against risk (AANZFTA, TPP and RECP are a start), our economic dependence on China may become an Achilles heel, should the fine balance in the region be upset.
If nothing else, we should take heed of a certain sense of disquiet in US circles about New Zealand's economic dependence on China. Addressing a class of military officers recently, I was asked how New Zealand felt about ceding so much power to China. Aside from indignant, I felt worried that the question was even being asked. On reflection, perhaps it's a question we should ask ourselves, at least to reassure us and our 'allies in all but name' that it is not the case.
Photo by Flickr user christophercozier.