We watch, but we don’t see.
For decades, New Zealand did just enough to support the economies of the South Pacific, Australia likewise.
That support was grudging.
Now, as China makes waves around the globe, the rules of play have changed.
Starting in Micronesia, north of the Equator, China has supported infrastructure investment and Chinese businesses have set up shop.
Those dual influences have grown steadily, spreading down to the island groups we know – Fiji, the Cook Islands – and also into the Philippines, starting at Fuga Island.
China, seeking to expand its new Silk Road far beyond the original link across Asia to Europe, is being countered in militaristic terms by the US.
The trade war, ostensibly to rejuggle exchange rates & trade balances, is ultimately more about global positioning.
For the Pacific’s residents, sea levels also enter the picture. Their patch of the globe will increasingly become a series of venues for influence, where sea levels & climate, military bases & financial support will be elements of the one jigsaw.
The South Pacific Forum meeting in Tuvalu was one where Australia opted to lose Pacific influence by choosing to protect its extractive industries, the riches which have made Australia far wealthier than New Zealand without even trying.
The Asia Times has set out much of the battle for influence, and secondly the climate change issues (see links below). This week the New York Times ran an examination of how Indian mining magnate Gautam Adani’s push to open the Galilee Basin in Queensland to coalmining had set resource extraction supporters against those alarmed at its impact on climate.
The standard outcome has been achieved – income has won against concerns over environmental impacts, particularly those far away.
The change is that “the West” will lose influence on Pacific nations – and at the end of the island chain is New Zealand, which will increasingly be put to influence-peddling affecting trade, currency, military bases – oh, and as an afterthought to be given less weight in the balance, the environment.
While we watch without taking sides, our future will be decided for us. We will be subjected to the bully factor, told to accept the bad with the good.
China is our major trading partner; it is also run by a dictatorial government. Government influence runs throughout the private sector.
In New Zealand, we are accustomed to being able to argue about how public sector influence takes effect.
On the other side is the US, also a big trading partner and a country currently wielding the big stick. It will not just want to salvage its Pacific strength to maintain its world dominance, it will need to.
Back in 1984, when Prime Minister David Lange told the US to accept our nuclear-free status, he got away with it. We were knocked out of an alliance we could afford to be out of, ANZUS, but business carried on.
Now, however, the pressure grows – through the Pacific, right down to New Zealand – to choose sides. Not to choose the good bits from each side but to choose one side, taking its bad along with its good.
In the past, the US as a western democracy seemed an obviously preferable mate, but it is increasingly presenting itself as a corrupt state where influence is bought.
For New Zealand to have a future where it has some freedom, we ought to be debating these issues so we can take steps to decide our future. What we’ve had, however, is occasional debate on comparatively petty local issues, where trade performance is proclaimed or declaimed without regard to context, where the nation’s future is seen as – well, is not thought about at all, while those petty points are taken.
It is more important to cajole the prime minister for another flit to the Pacific Islands than to consider the enormity of the debate held there, and the role our prime minister could play in giving that debate sound direction.
We do the petty, the inconsequential, best. Time to change.
New York Times, 15 August 2019: How one billionaire could keep 3 countries hooked on coal for decades
Links to Asia Times articles on Pacific positioning & climate change:
Alan Boyd, Asia Times, 13 August 2019: Geopolitical temperature rising fast in the Pacific
Richard Javad Heydarian, Asia Times, 8 August 2019: China’s isle investments ring Philippine alarm bells
Grant Newsham, Asia Times, 6 August 2019: Doing something about Chinese political warfare on US-linked Pacific islands
Asia Times, 5 August 2019: “Cowards don’t make history” – Prime Minister Bainimarama’s address at the Australian emission reduction summit
Grant Newsham, Asia Times, 5 August 2019: China ‘political warfare’ targets US-affiliated Pacific islands
Jonathan Manthorpe, Asia Times, 8 June 2019: China targeting Pacific isles for strategic bases
Asia Times, 31 July 2019: Nadi Bay declaration on the climate change crisis in the Pacific
Attribution: Asia Times, Nadi Bay declaration.