There has been plenty of criticism of the Labour-New Zealand First government for their failure to act meaningfully in support of the United Kingdom and other traditional western friends and allies, responding to the poisoning in Salisbury of the Skripals. I’d agree with the critics. Even Ireland – not in NATO, Five Eyes or other military/intelligence alliances – expelled a Russian diplomat in response. But not New Zealand. Add in that refusal to act to the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ attempts to minimise Russian responsibility for the downing of MH17 or to suggest Russian hadn’t been attempting to meddle in the US 2016 election, and it must be increasingly difficult for our friends and allies to take us seriously as either.
I don’t suppose Russia is much direct threat to New Zealand – though cyber threats aren’t restricted by physical proximity. But that shouldn’t really be the point. Countries simply shouldn’t be able to get away with killing (or in this case, so far, attempting to kill) people going about their lawful business in other countries without some response. And the provision of support in times of need is what friends and allies do – in fact, it is one of test of friendship. Kicking out diplomats (for a few months) is a feeble enough response, longer on symbolism than substance. But the New Zealand government wasn’t even willing to get onside with the symbolic response. Instead, we find our ourselves in the company of Greece – a country with very close historical and contemporary political, cultural and religious ties to Russia.
With enough determination even a country – Russia – whose real GDP (in purchasing power parity terms) is only a third of that of just the biggest four west European economies combined, and about 20 per cent of that of just the United States, can wreak a lot of havoc if it chooses, especially to its smaller and weaker neighbours. But it is still a country in relative decline.
So there is Russia and then there is the People’s Republic of China. I’ve recently been reading the book Henry Kissinger wrote a few years about China, including US relations with the People’s Republic in recent decades. It was a useful reminder that when the PRC and the United States opened up to each other almost 50 years ago now it was, from both sides’ perspectives, substantially about dealing with the greatest geopolitical threat of that era – the Soviet Union, which had armies (and nukes) perceived to threaten western Europe, and armies massed on the northern borders of China.
Here was the relative economic capacities (real GDP in purchasing power parity terms) of the three countries in 1970.
Of course, the PRC had enormously more people than either of the other countries (and, as Kissinger reports, Mao had often talked of China’s ability to absorb losses of a few hundred million people in a nuclear attack). Add in, on one side, the rest of NATO and, on the other side, the rest of the Warsaw Pact, and the western economic capacity was far far greater than that of the Soviet Union. But states like the USSR could still pose a threat, by devoting a far larger proportion of their resources to military purposes. Pre-war Germany was, after all, materially poorer than Britain and France (and respective empires) combined, and even a bit poorer than just the Soviet Union. Real GDP in Japan in 1940 was about a quarter of that of the United States. Japan and Germany lost – they were both poorer, and had fewer people than the countries they took on – but it tooks years and enormous sacrifices to beat them.
What of the situation now? This chart shows the ratio of PRC to US total real GDP, again in purchasing power parity terms, from 1980 (when the IMF database starts) through to forecasts for 2022.
In PPP terms, the size of the PRC economy exceeded that of the US a few years ago. Even if you think China might have some rocky times ahead – the overhang of all the internal debt – it seems highly unlikely that the PRC economy will ever again be as small as that of the US. On IMF numbers, in 2022 total GDP in China will be roughly equal to that of the US, Japan and Germany combined. Of course, material living standards in the PRC are much lower than those in the United States, but on the IMF projections by 2022 real GDP per capita in China is forecast to be about a third of that in the United States. Soviet Union real GDP per capita in 1970 was about a third of that in the United States then.
There is plenty of talk from the PRC of its “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development”. But even if we set Tibet to one side, this is the regime that has fought three aggressive wars (Korea, India, and Vietnam), which has used military action to seize islands and reefs in the South China Seas and which to this day has never ruled out the military conquest of its neighbour – the now prosperous democracy of Taiwan. If anything, the rhetoric around Taiwan has only been stepped up in recent years. In defiance of international law, the regime has created artificial islands from rocks and reefs, and continues to expand its military capability on those “islands”. The regime menaces Japan around the Senkaku Islands, and only last year there was the Doklam standoff with India. If you are worried about Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine – as most rightly are – there is plenty enough to match it in the aggression of the PRC. The PRC bullies and bribes regional goverments to gets its way (eg here) . And yet rarely a word is openly uttered by most Western governments, including our own.
And if Russia’s latest offence – egregious enough – was attempting to murder a couple more Russian citizens in Britain, what of the People’s Republic? There was a fascinating, and pretty disconcerting, article in Foreign Policy only a few days ago headed “The Disappeared” about the (alleged) activities of the PRC regime in kidnapping or otherwise coercing people who have left China – who may even be citizens of other countries (and the PRC doesn’t legally recognise dual citizenship) – to return. There is even a suggestion, from a former Chinese diplomat who defected to the West a decade or so ago, that such activities may have occurred in New Zealand.
One of the first cases to spark debate dates to 2005, when Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat who had defected to Australia, accused security forces of having drugged and kidnapped Lan Meng, the son of a former deputy mayor of Xiamen, five years earlier. Lan was allegedly drugged by Chinese security forces and transported from Australia back to China on a state-owned shipping vessel.
Chen, who was assigned to China’s consulate in Sydney at the time of his defection, claimed that Chinese officials abducted Lan in order to force his father, Lan Fu, to return to China from Australia to face criminal corruption charges. (Lan Fu returned to China in 2000 and is now serving a lifelong prison sentence.) Australian officials have contested Chen’s claims, and the alleged victim, like numerous others, apparently denied the story to Australian federal police.
But Chen remains adamant. Reached by phone in Australia, he confirms his account of Lan Meng’s rendition, citing numerous conversations about such abductions with Chinese military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials during his tenure at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He says while in office, he heard of at least one other Chinese-sponsored seizure in Australia, as well as one in New Zealand. Chinese operatives also performed similar kidnappings in Vanuatu and Fiji during this period, he says. (Chen says the New Zealand case involved a woman named Xie Li, who was kidnapped in Auckland in 2004 and returned to China via a state-owned shipping vessel.)
It would be interesting to know what the New Zealand government’s position is on this claim. (Probably wishing it had never been aired, lest they be put on the spot.)
Along similar lines is a new article in The Economist, which cites that way the PRC regime uses threats to families back in China to coerce silence or return from dissidents abroad – again, often citizens of other countries. It reminds us again of the case of the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai
In countries with closer ties to China, agents have occasionally dispensed with such pressures in favour of more resolute action. Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, says that he and other exiled dissidents have long avoided Cambodia, Thailand and other countries seen as friendly to China for fear of being detained by Chinese agents. The case of Gui Minhai, a Swede who had renounced his Chinese citizenship, suggests they are right to do so. He was kidnapped by Chinese officials in Thailand in 2015 and taken to the mainland. In a seemingly forced confession broadcast on Chinese television, he admitted to a driving offence over a decade earlier.
It all seems as least as lawless as Russia, quite probably more so. And yet in some parody of good government and the rule of law, a PRC senior official now heads Interpol.
We could go on, and focus on the PRC theft and dubious acquisition of all manner of intellectual property.
Or, then again, we could simply look at New Zealand itself, where the PRC is generally accepted as having exerted its energies here – among New Zealand citizens of Chinese descent – to get effective control of almost all the Chinese language media here (and something similar in Australia), and many religous and cultural bodies patronised by New Zealanders of Chinese descent. Or we could look at the Labour Party MP who was adopting slogans from Xi Jinping for Labour’s campaign among the New Zealand Chinese community. Or the National Pary MP, formerly a member of PRC military intelligence establishment, member of the Chinese Communist Party (which controls the PRC government), who closely associates with the PRC Embassy in New Zealand, and who has never once in his political career been heard to utter a criticism of the regime’s activities – whether here, abroad, or back in China itself. Who admits he lied about his background – at the direction of the PRC regime – when he came to New Zealand. Perhaps the regime exercises leverage over him by threats to his family back in China. If so, he clearly doesn’t have the capacity to operate as a member of Parliament in the interests of all New Zealanders. And if not, why can’t he bring himself to utter a word of criticism of such a noxious regime? (More generally, why won’t he front the English language media – the bits not until PRC/CCP control – at all?).
I wrote a post a few months ago, when the Jian Yang affair first broke about how it would have been inconceivable to have had a former KGB/GRU official in our Parliament in the 1970s – at very least, not one who wasn’t a trenchant critic of the USSR he had left behind. But I could bring that up to date. Imagine if there was a former GRU officer in the House of Commons, or our Parliament, today. It is inconceivable. And yet that is the equivalent situation we face with Jian Yang as a New Zealand MP today – something that no politicial figure will express any serious concern about, or that the National Party will do anything about.
Oh, and one of the responses to renewed Russian aggression in recent years has been to put on ice negotiations for a preferential trade agreement with Russia. That suspension seemed prudent and appropriate – both in managing relations with our friends in Europe, and on the substance of the case and the nature of the regime. And yet our government – and its predecessor – seem quite unbothered about a preferential trade agreement with the PRC, or – more pointedly – about continuing to negotiate right now for an upgrade to that agreement.
I’m disappointed that our government has refused to join the Western (symbolic) response to the apparent near-certainty of Russian government responsibility for the Salisbury attack. But in the scheme of things, the complaisance, the silence, the desire to do deals with the PRC – the refusal to confront even a situation like the Jian Yang one domestically – concerns me, and should concern New Zealanders, considerably more. If there is a serious double-standard at work in those who criticise the government about the Russia response, while never raising even a murmur about the PRC, perhaps there isn’t one in the government at all. They seem simply supine all round.
There was a column in The Australian the other day from a former deputy head of the Australian Department of Defence (and now head of a think-tank) in which he observed
Sadly, New Zealand’s failure to join other democracies in expelling Russian spies and Wellington’s kowtowing to Beijing shows that this is one old ally that already has given up the fight for Western values.
One hopes that is a premature conclusion, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for the other side at present. And it isn’t just a matter of values, or friendship, but of interests. If the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical threat in 1970, it is hard not to conclude that the People’s Republic of China – bigger and relatively richer than the Soviet Union ever was – holds that title today. Toadying served no country’s long-term interests in the 1930s, or during the Cold War. It doesn’t today either. Selling your birthright for a mess of potage wasn’t a great strategy for Esau, nor should it be for any one else with a modicum of self-respect.