Covid 19 coronavirus response a chance to reshape our foreign policy

[Published in the New Zealand Herald on 13 May 2020]

The Covid-19 crisis is shaking up our thinking in a number of areas, not least on foreign policy.

In the 1980s we were excluded from the Anzus alliance for daring to declare New Zealand nuclear-free. Since then we have supposedly had an “independent foreign policy”.

In practice, our policy would be better described as semi-independent. Sometimes we have gone our own way, such as when we refused to join the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. On other occasions we have joined with America, as in the Afghan war.

For many years after the Anzus split, New Zealand governments avoided describing us as allies of America. The US administration reciprocated. Though not allies, we were, in the words of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, “very, very, very close friends”.

Now, it seems, we are “allies” again, working in a Five Eyes alliance with the US, Britain, Australia and Canada. Five Eyes was originally an intelligence network but now the term has been broadened to cover military relations between these five powers. New Zealand, for its part, gears its armed forces to be inter-operable with its Five Eyes partners and joins them in frequent military exercises.

America is clearly the dominant force within the Five Eyes, which in the era of President Trump makes life difficult for New Zealand.

Few New Zealanders want to be associated with a president whose watchwords are “America First” and has little time for a co-operative approach to major world problems, such as climate change, Covid-19 and global poverty

America’s designation of China as its main strategic enemy also creates a major problem for New Zealand, given our reliance on trade with China.

The American contestation with China predates the Trump administration but the current president has really ramped it up, partly to distract from his mishandling of the Covid-19

Wouldn’t it be better if New Zealand left the Five Eyes and was truly non-aligned, working with America, China and all other countries on their merits?

We are moving into a difficult post-Covid-19 world where working together globally will be even more needed. Neither of the two superpowers have the answers. America is acting like a global bully and China’s delayed response to Covid-19 has illustrated the problems with its top-down political system.

Encouraging China to become more democratic is an essential task, given the economic and political weight it has in world affairs.

But New Zealand can do that more effectively if we are not seen to be part of an American-dominated alliance and an accomplice in Donald Trump’s China-bashing.

Chinese people are proud of the economic advances their country has made and don’t look kindly upon Trump’s trade bans and his restrictions on the sale of advanced technology to their country. Such measures produce a nationalist response among ordinary Chinese, which the rulers of the country use to their advantage.

China does have the potential for moving in a more democratic direction. Its leaders are not immune to pressure from below. We glimpsed that in the huge wave of sympathy on social media following the state persecution of Li Wenliang, who died earlier this year after blowing the whistle on Covid-19.

It is understandable we have taken so long to move to a non-aligned stance in world affairs. It is hard to break from the past, including decades of loyalty to American leadership from World War II to the Cold War and beyond.

We have also been subject to pressure from Australia, which has hitched its wagon to America, in foreign policy terms. Australia’s relations with China, a major trading partner, are going through very difficult times.

It is time for us to go it alone, to have confidence in ourselves. New Zealand is getting lots of plaudits for how we have handled the coronavirus. We have drawn on our strengths as a relatively cohesive, democratic society. We are well-placed to also play a constructive role in an emerging post-Covid world.

• Keith Locke is a former Green MP.