The beat-up on New Zealand for having “gone soft on China” – as continued in the transtasman press conference in Queenstown today – is based on the fallacy that New Zealand was ever “hard” on China, relatively speaking.

Compared with Australia’s tub-thumping style of diplomacy, New Zealand has never been hard on China, and never will be. In that sense, it can’t have gone soft.

It also implies that tub-thumping is necessarily the best way to advance Australia’s interests – and that is not a view universally endorsed within Australia.

The simplistic complaint of the Australian 60 Minutes programme was that New Zealand was going “unpunished” by China because it stayed silent while Australia defended democracy (by tub-thumping over a Covid-19 inquiry that everybody wanted).

But the more valid point of comparison for New Zealand is not Australia’s tone but New Zealand’s own record.

And in fact, New Zealand has become more critical of China, not less. New Zealand has increasingly used its voice to express concerns about China’s actions in many different ways, particularly on Hong Kong.

It did so in eight statements last year, two of which were with other Five Eyes partners.
one Five Eyes statement on Hong Kong when Winston Peters was Foreign Minister and the other was since Nanaia Mahuta has been Foreign Minister.

Admittedly none of the statements called them “bastards” or “thugs” but they used the accepted coded diplomatic language for calling on China to respect its pledges about Hong Kong, to respect the rule of law.

It is little wonder that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern barely disguised her indignation when the accusation of having “gone soft” or “cosying up to China” was again suggested at the press conference in Queenstown with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Morrison defended New Zealand as he had to. He knows that any sense of public disagreement on China will please only China and as a regional leader, it is in his interests to present a unified position with New Zealand.

Significantly, he invoked the Anzus alliance twice in his 24-hour visit in relation to New Zealand, which is ironic.

The pile-on against New Zealand was precipitated by Ardern and Mahuta deciding to explain publicly a few weeks ago why New Zealand would not be outsourcing its foreign policy on China entirely to the Five Eyes intelligence network every time it wanted to slap China around the ears. It wanted to make its choices independently.

After New Zealand was suspended from its three-way Anzus alliance with the United States and Australia over its anti-nuclear policy, in the mid-1980s, Kiwis developed a more independent foreign policy under successive Prime Ministers Jim Bolger, Helen Clark and John Key.

Bolger took a strong stand against nuclear testing in the Pacific, Clark decided not to hang around waiting for a free trade deal with the US and got one with China and, under Key, New Zealand took a different stand from traditional allies on the Palestinian-Israel conflict – a position which eventually led Israel to recall its ambassador from Wellington for a period.

Technically, Anzus continues in a two-way security pact between Australia and the US, and is also the basis for New Zealand’s defence relationship with Australia – although two other agreements are as well, the 1944 Canberra Pact and Closer Defence Relations sealed in 1991.

The term Anzus has rarely been used in relation to Australia in New Zealand until now.

The fact that Scott Morrison deliberately alluded to the Anzus alliance with New Zealand twice is a departure from the usual invocations of the Anzac spirit.

Analysts will be poring over his statements, especially in light of Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s public musings about armed conflict.

These things are not said for nothing. The Anzus reference is likely a gesture on the part of Australia to remind New Zealand that it is a formal defence ally in dealing with the area known as the Indo Pacific and that requires obligations, not complete independence.

Morrison described both the Indo-Pacific and the Pacific regions as “sovereign,” which is effectively code for “keep out” to China, which seems intent on finding a naval base in the Pacific.

The leaders’ joint statement is more direct this year than after last year’s annual talks, which mentioned China only in terms of its bad behaviour in the South China Sea.

The Queenstown statement references China directly in relation to its crackdown in Hong Kong and the situation with Uighurs.

One can assume that Australia may have preferred harder wording and New Zealand something slightly more diplomatic.

But definitely not “soft.”

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