New Pacific Geo-Politics: Michael Powles Asks Whether We Need to Choose between Security, Trade and Our Neighbours

By Powles, Michael | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

New Pacific Geo-Politics: Michael Powles Asks Whether We Need to Choose between Security, Trade and Our Neighbours


Powles, Michael, New Zealand International Review


New Zealand will have new challenges in the decades ahead because of its unique situation: some security dependence still on the old great power and increasing economic dependence on the new great power. Rivalry between China and the United States is increasing. Moreover, Sino-Japanese rivalry is also increasing and some observers fear conflict. Whatever develops, the situation will be enormously demanding for New Zealand. Nevertheless, we must not be deflected from honouring longstanding obligations in our own neighbourhood, including greater recognition of Pacific Islands' own priorities, governance, depopulation, Papua New Guuinea and regional leadership, Indonesia, our commitment to clecolonisation, peoples' mobility and the need to restore New Zealand's diminishing diplomatic capacity.

In the new Pacific geo-politics my argument when confronted with the question of whether we need to choose among security, trade and our neighbours is that we must avoid having to choose between them. Our security, our trade and our neighbours are all crucial to us and will remain so through the 21st century, and of course beyond. But it is also a theme of this article that in the new Pacific geo-politics of the 21 st century, continuing to give priority to all three will be increasingly demanding, requiring significant resources and skill on New Zealand's part.

Some of the challenges which will preoccupy the region in the 21st century are certainly new, like the emergence, or more accurately re-emergence, of China as a great power. Many challenges seem to be longstanding, like achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the whole question of development itself as well as the on-going search for improved trading arrangements in the wider Asia-Pacific region, but they are no less crucial for that. And others could appropriately be labelled 'unfinished business', a category that could include decolonisation in the region.

Geo-politics involves practical diplomacy. Indeed, elements of practical diplomacy can have as large an influence internationally as learned theories of international relations. Ninety per cent of diplomacy involves muddling along somewhere between war and peace or between success and failure. Dr Gerard Finn of Hawai'i made this point more eloquently when he quoted from the late Sir Paul Reeves: 'We edge our way to a better situation', which amounts to a kind of moral pragmatism.

Unique challenges

But today some of the challenges that face us are indeed unique. For our whole history New Zealand has relied for both its security and its prosperity on our relations with Western powers. That has been the centre-point of our place in the world. Today, however, while our principal security partners continue to be Western, China has become our biggest trading partner.

Having a security foot in one camp and an economic foot in another has the potential to be both difficult and painful. Australia's position is similar, of course, but we would be foolish to think that our situation is really comparable to that of a major middle power with enormous resources that are in high demand. Rivalry between China and the United States has shown signs of intensifying in recent years, and this situation is complicated by America's alliance relationship with Japan, particularly, with which Chinas relations are becoming increasingly tense.

It is not my purpose to try to predict how the situation in East Asia is likely to develop in the years ahead. But I do want to emphasise its complexity to indicate how preoccupying and demanding it will be for a country like New Zealand. I am very conscious of the comment by Foreign Minister Murray McCully that there was no doomsday scenario to be feared and he was not being kept awake at night by talk of potential conflict between the great powers.

But I suggest we would be foolish not to keep in mind that Japan's former prime minister Taro Aso has said, 'Japan and China have hated each other for a thousand years, what should be different now? …

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