29 Mar 2023

Balancing our alliances

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 29 March 2023

The geopolitical chess game in the Indo-Pacific has become increasingly complicated in recent weeks.

US President Joe Biden (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) during the AUKUS summit at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California on March 13, 2023. - AUKUS is a trilateral security pact announced on September 15, 2021, for the Indo-Pacific region. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

US President Joe Biden (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) during the AUKUS summit at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego California on March 13, 2023. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

In the latest developments, Australia has signed off a deal - part of the AUKUS defence pact - to acquire nuclear-powered submarines; and China's president Xi Jinping has travelled to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Newsroom's national affairs editor Sam Sachdeva says for a small nation like New Zealand, the world's becoming increasingly tricky to navigate from a foreign policy perspective.

"We are walking a fine line really, a tightrope of sorts, between the two countries [China and the US]."

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta travelled to China last week - the first ministerial visit since 2019. Meanwhile, several US government officials have visited New Zealand over the past month.

In a more contested region, will there come a time that New Zealand needs to pick a side?

"It does feel like it's heading that way," Sachdeva tells The Detail.

"We talk a lot about New Zealand's 'independent foreign policy'. I think that phrase is over-used, and people tend to confuse 'independent' with 'neutral' as well. 

"Just because we have an independent foreign policy doesn't mean we're not going to side with the US on some issues, or with China on others. It just means that we have to go through those processes ourselves and make a decision that's in our best interests."

A concern for New Zealand is the possibility of China involving itself in Russia's war against Ukraine.

"We have been very strongly supportive of Ukraine and very condemnatory of the Russians and their aggression.

"If China was to weigh in - that is a big if... they've stayed a little bit back and I think they're aware that they don't want to get too closely associated with Putin - if they were to become a formal part of the war in some form on the Russian side, then yes, you've got the US already talking about sanctions against China over its role, we've sanctioned Russia we have our special Russia Sanctions Act, and that allows us to take actions against other countries that are supporting Russia.

"New Zealand wouldn't have the excuse of saying, 'oh well, we don't have the legislation to do it', we would be able to. There would be a huge amount of pressure on all sides to act or conversely not to act."

Sachdeva says Mahuta's visit to China is a positive step and will pave the way for further ministerial visits - and potentially a visit by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

"Even if there are areas where we disagree - and there absolutely are - you want to have those lines of communication open and discussion going on."

Ultimately, geopolitical tensions between the US and China aren't good for a small country like New Zealand.

"The more tension, competition there is between great powers, the more likely we are to suffer. We benefit from a very stable, rules-based international order, where everyone's part of one system and playing ball."

Get a fuller picture of where New Zealand stands by listening to the full episode.

You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter