Could New Zealand serve as an 'honest broker' to repair ties between China and the West?

Amid the fallout from protracted trade wars and political conflicts between China, the United States and its allies, there stands a bright outlier.

Last week, the small nation of New Zealand managed to cut a fresh trade deal with China, expanding the breadth of its more than decade-old free-trade agreement and reducing tariffs on nearly all of its exports to China to zero.

Some have even argued that New Zealand could use its friendly relations with Beijing to serve as a mediator to help ease tensions between China and the other four other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing coalition - the US, Australia, Canada and the UK. Others warn that such an effort would be fraught with difficulty, given the entrenched positions of all parties, and could easily backfire on Wellington.

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As the only Five Eyes member largely free of conflict with China, New Zealand appears to be in a favourable position to act as an "honest broker", said Tan See Seng, a professor of international relations in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Singapore itself has acted as a third-party facilitator to help defuse several tense political situations in the past, notably at the Wang-Koo summit between China and Taiwan in 1993 followed by the Xi-Ma meeting, again between China and Taiwan, in 2015. These meetings could serve as possible models for New Zealand if it were to become a middleman, though the conditions for Singapore were different than they are for New Zealand.

"The question [of New Zealand's position as a broker] is very much in line with Wellington's recent offer to be the middle person for nuclear disarmament, in view of [US President Joe] Biden's purported interest to that end," Tan noted.

"[New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern's tack toward Beijing as part of New Zealand's 'country-agnostic' approach - although Wellington banned Huawei Technologies' involvement in its 5G networks - highlights New Zealand's different stance [towards China], relative to Australia's.

"So, yes, New Zealand seems well placed to play an honest-broker role between the major powers in select issue areas, and trade and climate change are likely the appropriate ones, given Wellington's obvious strengths in those."

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New Zealand's credentials bode well for the country to serve as a fair intermediary, Tan added, in particular because the country is not seen as tying its own policy priorities to those of the United States.

Wellington's independent foreign policy is also closely tied to its nuclear-free stance, including its willingness to speak out on nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1970s and '80s and its refusal to allow US nuclear-powered warships to dock in the country in 1985, which ultimately led to New Zealand's suspension from the ANZUS Treaty and a temporary diplomatic rift with traditional allies Australia and the US.

As an original member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, New Zealand could also help China with its membership aspirations.

And Ardern's global standing helps, Tan added.

"Despite New Zealand joining the international call for an independent inquiry into Covid, and backing Taiwan's bid for a [World Health Organization] observer seat, Ardern apparently waited until many others supported an inquiry first, before backing it," he said.

However, New Zealand still needs to earn the trust of the new Biden administration.

"There's nothing to prevent NZ from offering its services in brokerage, and it should. But it needs to walk into it with eyes wide open," Tan said.

In New Zealand, the views were split. An overarching concern, similar to Tan's, exists over the diplomatically precarious nature of a brokering role.

University of Waikato senior lecturer in international law Alexander Gillespie maintains that New Zealand holds a unique position to broker peace, but said it is essential that the country does not act so much as a mediator but rather as a facilitator of events that will get countries' leaders "in a room together at a neutral venue".

"It's not about one large goal, like what to do with Taiwan, it's about a process, a neutral venue, and starting to talk to, rather than at, each other," he said. "Fundamentally, I do not see China and the Five Eyes group as enemies. I see disagreements and the need to find neutral ground, to reset the relationship, and to put it all back on a positive path."

More "benign" issues such as climate change and post-coronavirus rebuilding could foster some cohesion. Even an international gathering over the conservation of a New Zealand bird, the bar-tailed godwit, could get the ball rolling, Gillespie added.

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But others were less sanguine.

Stephen Jacobi, former executive director of the New Zealand China Council and founder of the New Zealand International Business Forum, put it simply: "We need to manage our relations with larger parties very carefully."

"I don't think New Zealand is in a position to mediate in any way between China and other Five Eyes partners, at least not in a formal way," he said. "New Zealand is, of course, hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum this year, and that might provide opportunities for dialogue.

"But New Zealand is a small country with its own interests to advance and protect."

The perils of being a broker were laid bare on Thursday when New Zealand's trade minister, Damien O'Connor, suggested that Australia show China respect and act with more diplomacy, ruffling feathers in Canberra.

In a phone call afterward with his Australian counterpart, Dan Tehan, O'Connor said the "Australia-China relationship would always be a matter for China and Australia".

"New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, which allows us to maintain both our closest partnership with Australia and a mature relationship with China," O'Connor said.

Grant Duncan, a specialist in political theory and public policy from New Zealand's Massey University, said O'Connor's public comments to Australia were likely unnecessary, especially since New Zealand likes to view itself as an honest broker in the region.

"If China casts New Zealand as the good partner to cast shame onto Australia, then that's divisive, and not helpful," he said.

In Australia, however, former diplomat Bruce Haigh said New Zealand has shown it can take the lead in resolving conflicts, with the courage to exercise its views independently, as opposed to Australia appearing at times to be taking instructions from Washington.

But this was where things could get tricky for New Zealand, or any other country in a similar situation, as it could result in its position in the Five Eyes alliance and with China altered, said Wang Gungwu, a long-respected historian on Sino-Southeast Asian relations.

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"New Zealand's good intentions would be appreciated to begin with, but when it comes down to it, I am not sure it would make any difference to the confrontational approach that has dogged us for too long," he said. "The weak link is that it is one of the Five Eyes and may not be seen as really neutral."

Wang's perception that the doggedly stiff relations between China and the US could waste New Zealand's efforts was echoed by Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in the US.

He said recent comments by Biden's foreign policy team suggest that the new administration will carry on with Trump's uncompromising policies toward China.

New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has largely agreed with Trump's policies and explicitly expressed America's firm support for Japan and the Philippines in their respective disputes with China, Zhu noted.

Moreover, there are no plans for Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to speak by phone, even though Biden had already spoken to a number of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added.

"New Zealand or Singapore or any other country, no matter how well-intentioned, is not going to change the rigid, cold-war style of thinking of some countries."

The hard-nosed approach, now well in motion, means New Zealand, despite its credentials, would be best advised to steer clear of being a conflict intermediary, said Huang Kwei-Bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at Taiwan's National Chengchi University who has analysed third-party mediations, including the Wang-Koo talks that Singapore helped with.

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It would be better, Huang said, for New Zealand to take the more subtle approach of showing by example the benefits of a good relationship with China, such as the increasing of people-to-people exchanges and of skilled Chinese migration.

"It just needs to demonstrate the mutual benefit resulting from its effort," he said.

Bucknell's Zhu said that with the US' China discourse being dominated by China hawks in Washington, a bottom-up approach on both sides, involving grass-roots moderate groups, rather than a top-down approach, could be better at improving relations between the two superpowers.

Ultimately, if New Zealand or any other country wanted to contribute to brokering an easing of tensions, pursuing quiet diplomacy would be best, Wang added.

"Something dramatic is attractive, but unless that gets quick tangible results, it would end up going nowhere," he said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.