Balancing act

The biggest strategic challenge facing New Zealand is how to maintain good relations with the competing powers of the United States and China.

China or USA... do we have to pick sides?

Two rival powers will continue to shape the Asia–Pacific region: China, our trading partner, and the USA, our security partner. They can be fierce competitors, yet we want friendly and productive relationships with both. Ideally, we want them to get on with each other.

The old concern is that one day we, along with Australia, will be forced to make an impossible choice between our economic and security interests. But New Zealand has been making small choices already, trying to maintain a balance in our connections with Beijing and Washington.

Can we continue to do this as Xi Jinping's China gains more influence and America's role becomes more challenging in the Trump era? Will we have to rely more on other regional relationships?

Researchers at Victoria University of Wellington are looking at important questions about New Zealand’s strategic future and the opportunities ahead. And they're teaching tomorrow’s defence officials, intelligence analysts and diplomats who will be helping New Zealand deal with an uncertain Asia–Pacific landscape.

Battle of the superpowers

The biggest strategic issue for this generation is how New Zealand deals with the competition for regional influence between the United States and China, according to Professor of Strategic Studies Robert Ayson.

“For New Zealand there are competing pressures and opportunities that comes with having two strong, large powers in the Asia-Pacific region,” Professor Ayson says. “I’m researching what that means for New Zealand, and what sort of approaches are best for our policymakers to adopt.”

We are not facing an all-or-nothing choice, Professor Ayson explains. “Rather than one single decision about who we go with, it’s a series of smaller choices that happen on an almost daily basis. For example, we’ve chosen to join up with China’s new Asian Investment Bank, and at the same time we’ve sent trainers to Iraq, which is a way of working with the United States.”

Passing the baton of leadership

Professor Ayson says while it’s in New Zealand’s interests to keep both relationships going well, strains are beginning to show in this approach.

“As China becomes more muscular in the South China Sea, New Zealand has stepped up its rhetoric and is more willing to criticise that action—while we value our relationship with China, we are making it clear we’re not happy with some of these developments.

“At the same time, with the arrival of Donald Trump as the United States (US) president there are some interesting questions for New Zealand,” says Professor Ayson. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with US involvement was going to be a central plank for the New Zealand government because so much of our foreign policy is about trade. By cancelling its involvement in the TPP, the US has basically given the initiative to China on Asia-Pacific economic integration.

“So maybe the baton is changing hands—is a Trump administration speeding the process whereby America cedes regional leadership to China? What choices does that leave for New Zealand? Is it pushing us closer to China? Will we need to work even more closely with regional partners, such as Australia and Southeast Asian countries? What do today’s Political Science, International Relations and Strategic Studies students—who will be tomorrow’s defence officials, intelligence analysts and diplomats—need to have in the backs of their minds as they deal with this evolving situation? These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking, and which we are thinking about at Victoria.”

To find out more

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