Thursday, 31 May 2018

New Zealand likes to portray itself as a small and nimble trading nation, with its own will when it comes to foreign policy, and doing deals in our nation's self-interest. According to the narrative, we are the plucky nation at the end of the world, determinedly making our way in an increasingly turbulent environment, always "punching above our weight" (as that simply ghastly phrase goes), never afraid to say what we mean, and prepared to stand up for it. It has a whiff of naive innocence and old-fashioned derring-do about it, which, although endearing, is simply not true.

No, our country has an unerring ability to put all our eggs in one basket, and then wonder why things do not turn out quite as expected. When Britain announced in 1959 that it wanted to join the then European Economic Community, we were the country that refused to believe it was happening, despite the nearly 15 years that were to pass before Britain eventually joined Europe in 1973. And when the penny slowly dropped and reality dawned, we spent the latter half of the 1960s and the early 1970s trying to negotiate special annual access deals for our agricultural exports. (The ultimate futility of this approach - the so-called New Zealand "Special Case" - was put into perspective for me once in Ireland when a particularly hostile Agriculture Minister told me that if I could convince  the farmers in his largely rural constituency that they should sacrifice some of their prosperity to protect the interests of farmers 12,000 miles away, then he would back New Zealand's case in Brussels.)

After Britain joined the EEC, we tried to diversify markets and latched upon Iran as a likely trading partner, on a "dairy for oil" basis, only to have that blown out of the water by the 1973 and 1979 Oil Shocks, and the overthrow of our then new best friend, the Shah. Then  we lurched on to "dairy for Ladas" deals with the old Soviet Union, only to have those deals crumble as the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Now, we have discovered China, concluding about ten years ago the first free trade China has made with any country. Bilateral relations between the two countries have become extremely close, to the worrying extent that other traditional partners are now showing concern that our ties to the world's largest nation are making us somewhat of a soft "underbelly".

The problem is that in pursuing a strong economic relationship with China, which is very good for our exporters and economic prosperity, we have inevitably sacrificed some of our soul. For example, China is one of the world's leading death-penalty states, yet allegedly fearless, human rights upholding New Zealand stays "relentlessly" silent on the frequency with which China executes its citizens, for paralysed fear of upsetting her.

And the appalling way we treat Taiwan - one of the strongest democracies in the region, and a stark contrast to China in this regard - is a long-standing national disgrace. It is absolutely proper for China to assert that Taiwan is not an independent country, but a renegade province and inalienable part of China, that they, by peaceful means, wish to recover. But that is an issue between China and Taiwan. Other countries are free to make up their own minds. It is not right for China to bully other nations to see the issue the way it does, and to expect those nations to comply, because China says so. Here is the rank hypocrisy: although Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with only a small and diminishing group of countries, virtually every country, including plucky, brave independent New Zealand, maintains extensive backdoor quasi diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and in reality treats it as a de facto, separate country from China, but dares not say so.

Yet, in a rare brave move on the trade front, New Zealand did conclude a free trade agreement with Taiwan during the term of the previous government, but it now needs to back that up with some political bravery to give even a shred of substance to the romantic story we like to tell about ourselves.

The Chinese basket may be the biggest yet, but the eggs within it are just as breakable as those we have put in other baskets over the years. Sadly, we seem unwilling to learn any lessons from the last 50 years or so, and so appear pig-headedly destined to repeat all the same mistakes, and suffer the same mishaps, all over again.      

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