Robert Ayson: Trump will push New Zealand closer to China

Against Donald Trump's protectionism, Chinese president Xi Jinping is casting his country as a bastion of free trade.
RUBEN SPRICH/REUTERS

Against Donald Trump's protectionism, Chinese president Xi Jinping is casting his country as a bastion of free trade.

OPINION: Even before Donald Trump's inauguration, China was challenging the new administration's capacity to lead the world. Speaking at the Davos Forum in Switzerland, President Xi Jinping has been presenting China as the new champion of free trade and globalisation. 

There are few challengers to that crown. Certainly not the United States whose new president treats free trade arrangements as a threat to American interests. 

Probably not the EU, whose rich trade zone will be diminished by Britain's coming withdrawal. 

Not a growing India, whose ambivalence on free trade continues. And not Japan, for whom the TPP would have been a promising building block to greater regional connectivity. 

At one level, New Zealanders might be relaxed about China's claim to international economic leadership. After all, the FTA with China is a central element in our trade-focused foreign policy. And many New Zealanders are aware of how important China's continuing economic growth is to our prosperity. 

Unlike Australia, we don't have a strong public debate about China where concerns about China's military rise sometimes match stories of economic benefits. 

But New Zealand's comfort about China's rise has been helped by a consistent and steady American presence in Asia. The resulting regional equilibrium has offered space to manage the effects of China's growth. 

And because of our trade focus, the most important thing Washington could do for New Zealand was to advance the TPP. That era is finished. By jettisoning the TPP, the Trump Administration will relinquish the Asian economic integration initiative to China. 

Trump will make things even worse if he fosters a trade war with China. That sort of economic conflict would cut against New Zealand's free trade principles and its interests in an open and integrated Asia-Pacific economic system. 

Xi Jinping will play this for all it is worth, casting China as a strong defender of the economic status quo. And, at least on this question, Wellington will have little choice but to side with Beijing and oppose Washington. 

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Trump's advisers may feel that this still leaves America with plenty of options to counter China's growing influence. On the diplomatic side, Trump has already hinted that he sees America's long-standing one China policy as a bargaining chip to pressure Beijing. 

But if this turns Washington into an advocate for Taiwan's independence, another New Zealand policy line will have been crossed. And in the competition between the two great powers, New Zealand will again end up closer to China. 

Of course it is the military sphere where the United States continues to have the greatest advantages over China. Here Trump has indicated that he intends to be tougher. 

That may please some in the region who were worried that a Trump Administration would abandon America's regional allies. But it could involve a very risky attempt to prevent China from advancing its South China Sea claims. Or it could mean a harsh response to a missile launch by North Korea which remains an ally of China. 

Few expect the new commander-in-chief to take a nuanced approach to these complex security problems. The result may not be a stronger American presence and a less confident China. It could be the increasing chance of an Asian war.

Against these obvious risks, it will be in China's interests to present itself as the responsible security stakeholder. Xi Jinping might well reduce China's assertiveness, at least for a while. That will make it even easier for New Zealand to draw a little closer to Beijing and to distance itself from Washington. 

We won't go as far as some have already done. Under President Duterte, the Philippines is defecting from its US alliance relationship in favour of closer links with China. And much of mainland Southeast Asia is firmly part of China's sphere of influence.

Instead New Zealand will be looking to what our traditional allies and partners such as Australia and Singapore are doing. We'll have more incentives to work with emerging partners such as Indonesia and Vietnam. And we know that Japan, South Korea and India don't want a dominant China either. 

The appeal of China has its limits. It may be able to brand itself as the new leader of the economic parts of the international liberal order. But Xi Jinping's increasingly authoritarian ways are a turn-off for societies who are attached to the political aspects. 

The rule of law, the protection of civil liberties, and democratically accountable government all remain important to New Zealand. And China simply can't lead in those domains. 

But here Western leadership is in short supply. Apart from Angela Merkel's brave efforts in Germany, much of Europe is softening its commitment to these ideas. London has other priorities. And especially if he embraces Vladimir Putin as a trusted strategic partner, Trump will signal that US leadership on liberal values is in recess. 

This all portends a bleak international outlook. That makes it even easier for China, no friend of the open society, to make its claim for leadership. And if Trump delivers on what he has been promising, his administration could well push New Zealand closer to China's orbit. 

Robert Ayson is a professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington. 

 - The Dominion Post

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