Jane Clifton: How Australia’s trade stance can materially affect us

The fights our closest traditional allies are spoiling for risk becoming our fights, despite our best efforts at diplomacy.

Are we missing a trick? This country is among those fortunate enough to be edging out of pandemic restrictions, but we seem to be alone in remaining determinedly inwardly focused.

Australia, in contrast, seems to be doing everything it can to provoke a major conflict with China. With its putative next defence secretary heralding “the drums of war”, it has succeeded in getting its No 1 trading partner to suspend economic relations after a series of punitive export bans costing it billions. Incredibly, this strategy seems popular rather than terrifying.

As for the UK, faced with a mere protest flotilla from France in its Channel Islands fisheries, it has sent armed patrol boats. Admittedly, these weren’t warships, but for a world anxiously focused on Taiwan just now, this theatre of aggression was disconcerting and rather retro. Whatever next? The Spanish Armada?

Yet Britons – many of whom admittedly suffer an arcane allergy to the French – couldn’t be prouder. Although hardly a rerun of Dunkirk, this skirmish has put the Falklands War in the shade for moving votes, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ridiculously mishap-prone Conservatives caning it in local elections.

These are our closest traditional allies, and their stances, particularly Australia’s, can materially affect us. The fights they’re spoiling for risk becoming our fights. Yet we can barely understand them.

There’s always the snapshot cynical view that cranking up a nationalism-foaming outrage can handily distract voters from domestic miseries, and Covid has been one heck of a misery.

For Britain’s Government, negotiating an uncertain post-Brexit trade map, the chance to belly up to France was political gold rather than an act of profound global significance. These machinations are unlikely directly to affect New Zealand, or our mainstay trans-Pacific trade bloc.

But Australia’s hawkishness is our problem – not least because in refusing to join in China-baiting under Aussie Rules, New Zealand is being widely pilloried abroad as a freeloader and a suck-up.

Actually, make that New Xiland.

Much of the commentary is easy to dismiss, since it’s fuelled by a visceral resentment – not unlike the French allergy – of this country’s having a youngish, female, liberal, huggy prime minister who is getting a sickening amount of global attention while many other world leaders have been making prats of themselves. To the cohort whom Private Eye magazine parodies as the Sir Bufton Tuftons, Jacinda Ardern’s success in containing Covid and her empathetic leadership through the Christchurch mosque massacres have been curdlingly infuriating. The Tuftons won’t be happy until we have a big solid bloke in charge again, as Australia sensibly does.

Typifying that attitude was a Daily Telegraph column, accusing Ardern’s “not so nice” New Zealand of taking a “pro-totalitarian” stance and putting our need for Chinese investment ahead of human rights. Unlike plucky Australia, of course, which is standing up to the bully.

Almost invariably such commentaries hark back to David Lange’s nukes ban of the 1980s as evidence of puny New Zealand’s refusal to muck in for the security of the democratic world. And furthermore, we can stick our incessant hobbit-ery up our allegedly pristine mountainscapes, along with our All Blacks, dairy produce and Taika Waititi (though do keep the sauvignon blanc coming, there’s a good little colony).

Security networks

It’s no use telling the Tuftons that the only unbridgeable difference between New Zealand’s stance towards China and those of our major allies is that we now refuse to use the Five Eyes security partnership as a vehicle through which to criticise Beijing. As former prime minister Helen Clark tartly observed, that grouping used to be a secret – discreet and discrete – as all effective security networks surely should be. Her arch foe Richard Prebble chimed agreement, saying security operations should never be the domain of diplomacy, as it muddies the waters dangerously.

Were we to give it to Sir Bufton straight, we would also say that Australia, the US and Britain have such appalling past and current human rights records that we’re blowed if we’re going to stand alongside them when we criticise China’s. As imperfect as New Zealand’s record is, it is a considerably superior moral high ground from which to preach than the others’.

Outside the Tufton harrumphing zone, however, the other countries’ perfectly valid counterview is that unless we use all available blocs to challenge China at every turn, that country will continue to behave badly. Simply to wear a different hat to administer paddywhacks is a cop-out. To break ranks even once is to allow China to use New Zealand as a wedge.

As wedges go, there’s also a canny general consciousness that our China stance is an appealing crowbar for rivals to wield in future trade square-offs. Our chums and cobbers temporarily disappear when it’s a question of lamb quotas or competitive fruit influxes. Not to put too fine a point on it, none of New Zealand’s trade rivals is making this a “human rights or no trade” equation.

Talking tough

We all face the same benefits and drawbacks from dealing with China. It’s just that Australia is geographically in the thick of it. New Zealanders forget that Australia doesn’t share our sense of being in a benign strategic environment. It’s talking tough because it feels frightened.

What’s finally caused fright-sharing at this end is that no one knows what these turbulent crosswinds might eventually stir up. Some China analysts say Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is overly seized with putting an indigenous-rights template over everything, even at the cost of diluting the diplomatic heft of New Zealand’s allies. Others worry Australia’s manspreading diplomacy will end badly, because it’s in no one’s interests to accelerate, let alone blatantly invite, hostilities with a superpower. Clearly its end game is to bring the US into the fray, and at that point we’re into nuke territory.

To sensibilities here, Australia’s behaviour seems ostentatiously belligerent. For them, there’s a general consciousness that formal military hostilities with China are a matter of when, not if, and why the heck are Kiwis so complacent?

New Zealanders probably need to remind themselves that their country is regarded as such a mouse in the scheme of things that we’ve been mocked in Sir Bufton-speak as a mere “dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”. Of that alone, Australians are understandably resentful and envious.

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