Politics: How to Mix Old and New Friends

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin James

April is Australia-New Zealand month, with China thrown in --a variation on February, which was Australia-New Zealand-United States month. That highlights the external priorities which New Zealand has to balance in the 2010s.

New Zealand has regular "track 2" forums with Australia (the oldest, formed in 2004), the United States and Japan. They bring together business and other sector leaders, officials and ministers. They are unofficial, aimed at deepening connections and building a joint constituency for action on bilateral matters and combined actions abroad.

The United States forum was meeting in Christchurch on February 22, the day of the devastating aftershock. Bonding took a novel turn at lunch: under the table.

Also interrupted were the third trilateral talks at high official level, including Australia. The first -- and only -- topic covered was a rundown of the United States' latest analysis of China.

The Australian forum next meets on April 8-9 in Auckland.

It will be preceded by a semi-academic conference on China, Australia and New Zealand: the different interests, perspectives and outlooks. Last year's Otago University's annual foreign policy school conference was on China and the bilateral relationship. Now there are ambitions to put together a "track 2" forum with China.

This China syndrome illustrates the sea change in New Zealand's external relations. It will require tricky navigation.

First, there is the close relationship with Australia, affirmed by Julia Gillard's February visit. The economies and societies are deeply intertwined. Anzac Day this month reminds us of that.

But there is also a big difference. Australia's strategic policy centres tightly on its military alliance with the United States, an alliance which plugged it automatically into the Iraq invasion. It thinks itself a serious power. Its defence white paper two years ago called China a potential threat. Australia cannot get traction in its bid to match New Zealand's free trade agreement (FTA) with China.

That FTA owes much to New Zealand's multilateral, non-alliance-based foreign and strategic policy. …

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