Tuesday, 19 March 2013

U.S. and N.Z. re-engagment faces major obstacles

For the last few years it has been impossible to talk about the Asia Pacific region without mentioning the United States. Early in his second, and final, term as American President, Barack Obama made it very clear his nation will switch their strategic focus towards Asia as the fastest growing corner of the globe.

Although the United States seeks economic as well as military objectives in the Asia Pacific the world’s only superpower is embarking on a process to build relations that will require long-term commitments to many nations.

New Zealand is part of that American refocus. Stronger ties are already being repaired after a long period of mutual political estrangement. A minor breakthrough came late 2012 when a ban on New Zealand naval vessels from participating in U.S.-led exercises and from berthing in American ports was finally lifted as a result of diplomatic goodwill.

(AP Photo / Larry Downing, Pool)
However, fundamental disagreements still remain between Wellington and Washington. Wellington’s staunch anti-nuclear stance has marginalised any bilateral military relationship with Washington since 1984.

No U.S. ship suspected to be armed with nuclear weapons is currently allowed in New Zealand ports. The United States will neither confirm nor deny whether their ships carry such weapons, effectively precluding all American vessels from New Zealand. Even though Washington reversed their stance in 2012, Wellington’s anti-nuclear position did not change suggesting New Zealand does not fully grasp the implications of retaining the antiquated ideological decision.

The geopolitical framework of the Asia Pacific has changed enormously in the last ten years. As an example, a few months before the terrorist attacks on America’s East coast a single U.S. surveillance aircraft, similar to a Royal New Zealand Airforce P-3 Orion, was crashed after colliding with a Chinese interceptor jet. The incident threatened to become a diplomatic nightmare for Washington and a still embryonic China, and probably would have been if history had turned out differently.

Now, as the United States wraps up its adventure in Eurasia, begins to tighten its military budget, and reapplies a focus on Asia as a dynamic region, it is discovering just how quickly Chinese and other Asian powers took advantage of a decade of U.S. distraction. 

To counter, or at least somewhat control, China’s rapid rise Washington is setting in motion a strategy to increase its presence and influence in Asia. While China’s military is still relatively weak, a low- to medium-level conflict cannot be ruled out in the future. This is the future Washington’s re-engagement with Pacific countries, including New Zealand, is preparing for.

The U.S. decision to repair and strengthen ties with New Zealand is part of a larger and maturing strategic defence posture in the Pacific creating a buffer of nations with shared ideological and economic interests which could be leveraged against China, if necessary.

                            USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)

American movements in the Pacific send a calculated and clear message to Beijing that China’s own expansion will not be easily achieved by intimidating Asia-Pacific nations. Re-engaging with New Zealand is one of the many examples over the past few months showing United States commitment to the security of the region promised by Mr Obama in 2012.

A reversal by New Zealand on its anti-nuclear policy is likely still years away, but politics is rapidly changing in the Pacific. With all this movement in the Pacific, it is a wonder why New Zealanders haven’t noticed the need to re-evaluate the antiquated anti-nuclear stance so proudly and courageously adopted decades ago. It is doubtful that New Zealand fully grasps the implications and reality of an offensive China.  

Washington can afford to be picky with whom it chooses to strengthen ties, and how quickly. If Wellington continues to stand against nuclear weapons in the 21 century, then Washington could largely overlook New Zealand as a close strategic ally and focus more heavily on more capable regional powers instead such as Australia and Indonesia.

Washington and Wellington are natural partners. Both countries have shared close strategic ties in the past and will continue to do so in the future. New Zealand troop participation in the Afghanistan theatre has left a positive lasting impression on American commanders no doubt, but the nuclear issue remains a sore point for elites in Washington.

But the point is fast approaching where New Zealand will need to choose either the protection of its long-time ally or face drifting into the widening sphere of Chinese influence. Today’s multipolar world makes the courageous moral choices of New Zealand’s past less prudent for long-term future security guarantees.

U.S and New Zealand cooperation will continue, but there is a good opportunity right now to ensure New Zealand is included in a larger capacity amongst the changing dynamics of the Pacific region.

Wellington can remain a courageous and robust decision-maker and still make the necessary repeals on antiquated ideological positions to strengthen ties with the United States and address the implications of an aggressive China.

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