Using material supplied by Nicky Hager and Edward Snowden, the Herald's David Fisher has revealed that New Zealand spies electronically on its neighbours in the South Pacific, and passes the data it has gathered to the United States. John Key has replied to Fisher's article with bluster about terrorism and New Zealand's forthcoming military adventure in Iraq, but nations like Tonga and Fiji are not known as bases for Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The United States is interested in the South Pacific because the region has become one of the front lines in a new Cold War. A lot of people in New Zealand and other Western nations think of the tropical Pacific as a backwater, where nothing of consequence has happened since the Second World War, but anyone who visits a place like Tonga will see that Beijing, Washington, and Canberra don’t share this view. In Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, warships from America, Australasia and China are regular visitors, diplomats from all those countries can be found negotiating with local politicians in air-conditioned cafes, aid workers operating under different flags compete to build schools and roads, and Australian public radio and China’s English-language television station both broadcast propaganda.
As China has grown in power over the past couple of decades, it has sent its diplomats, its navy, and its entrepreneurs deeper and deeper into the Pacific, a part of the world where the power of the United States and its Australasian allies was unrivalled for decades. America and its allies have found themselves competing with China for influence, resources, and bases.
A number of right-wing pundits have claimed that that the confrontation between China and the United States does not pose any problems for New Zealand, because this country has historically been a close ally of America, and enjoys all sorts of cultural links with other American allies like Australia and Britain. If China and America come to blows then, these commentators suggest, New Zealand should side with Washington.
But New Zealand will be put in an extremely difficult situation if the Cold War between Beijing and Washington ever looks like heating up. The all-important dairy sector of our economy has over the last decade and a half become focused on China. Nearly half of our dairy exports now go to that country. In the 1950s and ’60s we were sometimes known as ‘Britain’s farm', but today we are China’s farm.
China has shown in recent years that it is prepared to punish nations that displease it economically. It has, for example, imposed ‘virtual sanctions’ on some countries whose heads of state have had face to face meetings with the Dalai Lama, by limiting the imports it takes from these countries. China also punished the Philippines, with whom it had been having a border dispute, by refusing to aid that country after it was devastated by a typhoon a couple of years ago (New Zealand tried the same tactic with Tonga last year, in the aftermath of Cyclone Ian
). If the confrontation between China and the United States becomes more serious, then China is likely to punish nations it perceives as close allies of America by suspending or severely limiting trade with them. Without access to the consumers of China, New Zealand's economy would swiftly sink.
If New Zealand does not want to get caught in the middle of a clash between the United States and China, then it needs either to distance
itself politically and militarily from America or else somehow find a new and massive export market.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]