By Sara Khatau
New Zealand, though a small country, has gained a big reputation for being a moral superpower. In the aftermath of the March 15th terror attacks, the world celebrated New Zealand’s strong rejection of Islamophobia. New Zealand recently signalled a desire to assert its brand of value-based politics at the Christchurch call. However, there seems to be a growing discrepancy between our foreign policy and that of our Five Eyes allies: the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Five Eyes is an intelligence-sharing alliance that emerged as a result of post-Cold War politics. Over the past decade, mounting Chinese influence has been a prominent concern for the Alliance, encouraging the formation of an Indo-Pacific strategy. Alliance members have condemned both China’s military actions in the South China Sea and their suppression of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Recently, New Zealand’s response to the treatment of the Chinese Uyghur has had important international relation implications and has forced us to re-evaluate our foreign policy. However, it appears that New Zealand is at a crossroad. Should we maintain a strong diplomatic relationship with the economic-powerhouse that is the Chinese state? Do we need to appease our traditional allies? How can we uphold our long-standing role as a human-rights defender?
Uyghur Human Rights Abuses:
International authorities have acquired credible evidence that implicates China in committing human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur in Xinjiang. Evidence includes ‘forced sterilisation, forced labour, and allegations of mass rape and torture.’ The Uyghur is a traditionally marginalised group; a black sheep among the typically monocultural and largely atheist population of China.
China’s actions have and continue to be criticised globally. Criticism has been particularly strong from Five Eyes members such as Britain, the United States and Canada, who have chosen to classify the human rights abuses as genocide. Even smaller countries such as Lithuania and Belgium have spoken out despite the threat of retaliation by China. The Chinese government adamantly refutes responsibility and claims that any international criticism over their domestic matters is an unacceptable encroachment of Chinese sovereignty.
New Zealand’s Response:
ACT politician Brooke van Velden recently filed a motion urging Parliament to consider whether China’s actions against the Uyghur’s can be described as genocide. The Uyghur community in New Zealand in an open letter has also called upon Parliament to take action and help “the fate of the 20 million Uyghur people suffering back home.” While is clear that the Green Party supported the proposal, it is unclear where National stands, with Judith Collins refusing to make a definitive statement. Ultimately, within cross-party consensus the term ‘genocide’ has been removed from the debate.
Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, has condemned China for perpetrating ‘severe human rights abuse’ in the Xinjiang region, and noted the need for greater ‘transparency and accountability.’ In this manner, New Zealand has acknowledged the situation in Xinjiang yet has made the deliberate decision to use words carefully. However, the Labour government is being criticised for inappropriately “softening” the language to describe the long-term oppression of the minority Uyghurs. New Zealand’s decision of refraining from characterising China’s actions as genocide makes us different to allies such as the United States, Britain and Canada. In fact, during a British parliamentary debate, New Zealand was condemned for succumbing to the Chinese government. Notably MP Bob Seely, denounced New Zealand’s position as an ‘ethical mess.’ Recently, a critical Australian 60 minute documentary denounced New Zealand as “New-Xi-Land”.
New Zealand’s policy response to the abuses in Xinjiang can largely be explained simply by one word — trade. As Judith Collins bluntly puts it, New Zealand’s trading relationship with China was the ‘elephant in the room’ influencing the discussion. Currently, China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner: New Zealand exports to China amounting to $20.1 billion annually. Prior to the caucus discussion of the genocide motion, the Trade Minister Damien O’Connor, did not beat around the bush noting the high stakes involved. O’Connor suggested that “it’s hardly rocket science” that China may respond financially if New Zealand was to overstep. New Zealand has seen the financial impact Australia’s condemnation of China has resulted in, with calls to cancel the investment of the Belt and Road initiative with China. While New Zealand’s economy adapts to the new normal of a Covid-19 world, the decision to placate China is perhaps understandable. On the other hand, as Golriz Ghahraman noted, it is unsettling that New Zealand has chosen to “prioritise trade over mass torture and death.”
The Bigger Picture: Foreign Policy Implications:
Putting aside the question as to whether New Zealand’s decision can be justified, our response points to potentially concerning problems in our diplomatic relationship with China. Prime Minister Ardern has herself recognised that New Zealand’s differences with China are becoming “harder to reconcile.” New Zealand must now determine how to carve its national independence while maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with China. This delicate balance may not be easy to achieve but will be critical in determining our foreign policy and ability to take on a leadership role in the international stage.
Some claim that New Zealand’s reluctance to challenge China has made itself stand out as the ‘weakest’ among the Five Eyes alliance. Alternatively, it may be suggested that by not conforming to the Alliance’s mandate, New Zealand has prevented itself from being cocooned with foreign policy that is designed for and more suitable for the larger alliance members such as the United States. Perhaps, by making independent decisions New Zealand can better serve its own national interests. Regardless of the conclusion reached, going forward it is clear that New Zealand must now make important and strategic decisions. Ultimately, an unfavourable decision may have the effect of landing New Zealand in an undesirable trade war with China or jeopardising our well-established relations with the Five Eyes alliances. It is clear that New Zealand wants to maintain strong diplomatic and bilateral relations whilst upholding its value based politics – the question is how.