Cowering and contemptible

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the utter silence, from all New Zealand officeholders (most notably the Prime Minister), about the abduction –  no better word for it –  by the People’s Republic of China of a couple of Canadian citizens, apparently in an attempt to coerce Canada into not proceeding – in the event the Canadian courts find that the other terms of the treaty have been met – with the extradition to the US of the Huawei CFO.

….you have to wonder what goes through their minds when Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters decide to stay quiet, when our traditional allies speak out.   Does it not for a moment cross their mind that one day New Zealand might find itself in Canada’s position, and to wonder who –  if anyone –  might go into bat for us, and for our citizens if they were to be abducted by the regime in Beijing?

By their utter silence, on this as on so many other PRC issues, our MPs and ministers dishonour this country and its people.   Cowering in a corner, deferring to Beijing, is simply unbecoming people who purport to lead a free and independent country.

It isn’t as if any of this is particularly new.  Our Prime Minister won’t speak up about the gross abuses in Xinjiang, won’t speak up about the intensified persecution of other political and religious dissidents, won’t speak up about…..well, almost anything.  But somehow it is a degree more shameful when you won’t even stand up for your friends.   When you are the cowardly one when others around you – in this case, other advanced countries – have been willing to make a stand.  It is contemptible behaviour.

There was more news this week.  We are told that the Prime Minister took a call from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  I suppose she didn’t have much choice but to take the call –  Trudeau has after all been seen as cut from the same left-wing ideological cloth as the Prime Minister.    But the Prime Minister wouldn’t even comment on the call –  has anyone heard from her on anything for weeks now? – instead sending out not even the government’s ‘duty minister’, but just a spokesman for him, to blather and say nothing.

Ardern was not available for comment today but a spokeswoman for duty minister Grant Robertson confirmed Ardern had a brief conversation with Trudeau yesterday.

“Although the cases are a consular matter between Canada and China, as the extradition case relates to a Huawei executive in Canada, there are principles at stake that concern us all.”

What an utterly meaningless statement.

Perhaps, perhaps. the Prime Minister had quietly given her support to Trudeau but just didn’t want to let New Zealanders know?  It never seemed very likely, but a day or so later the Canadian Foreign Minister pretty much ruled out that (exceedingly charitable) interpretation

Ms. Freeland said Canada is grateful for the support it has received in recent days from Germany, Estonia, France, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom Britain and the United States.

But not New Zealand, even though the two Prime Ministers had talked just a day or two previously.

When I mentioned this around the dinner table, one of my kids suggested that perhaps New Zealand was just small and had been forgotten.  But, of course, not only is New Zealand a traditional close friend, ally, and partner of Canada, but we are bigger than any of the three Baltics in the list.  Clearly, Canada is receiving no support at at all from New Zealand.

It isn’t the way decent people behave.  But it seems to be an acceptable standard for every single one of our elected officials; cowering contemptibly.

Who knows quite what it is they fear?  Perhaps it is that “FTA”- upgrade, or the trip the PM wants to make to Beijing, or some threat to the success of their year of Chinese tourism, or the flow of political donations, or whatever.    Whatever the rationalisation, it is shameful, and imprudent.   Just as schoolyard bullies try to pick off weak kids one at a time, so the People’s Republic of China.  But Ardern –  and Peters, Bridges, McClay, Shaw et al – simply refuse to recognise the character of the regime.  Perhaps there might be a modest cost to some entities if New Zealand were to take a stand –  on an egregious abuse –  but any worthwhile moral stance almost inevitably involves a cost. It is the willingness to pay a price that, in many respects, marks out the value someone places on their belief.  There is little sign that, when it comes to the PRC, our leaders put any value at all on any beliefs –  just deals and donations.

On which note, the Executive Director of the government-funded pro-PRC propaganda agency, the China Council, returned from his holiday to tweet on this issue.

When I first saw the tweet I was momentarily pleasantly surprised, until I realised that what Jacobi was actually championing was the line that somehow New Zealand could be a bridge between the PRC regime and the rest of the world.  The old “elite New Zealand” delusion that somehow by making nice to evil, never ever uttering a complaint about anything –  recall how upset the China Council was when the Huawei ban was announced – we could influence Beijing for the better.   That’s worked out so well over the last seven years as Xi Jinping has taken the PRC ever further back to heavy-handed repression at home, and into an era of new aggression abroad.  Cosying up to such evil should be something to be ashamed of, not trying to fool yourself and others that somehow the regime will be deterred from its aggressive defence of Meng Wanzhou by sweet nothings murmured quietly (if at all) by our Prime Minister or her officials.

Finally, on things PRC, there was a strange column on Newsroom the other day by Robert Ayson, professor of strategic studies at Victoria University.   His lament is that New Zealand/PRC relations are not what they were, while his vision appears to be one of “untrammelled mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, as if he cares not a jot about the character of the regime.  Perhaps he’d have been one of those urging “untrammelled mutual respect” with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s?

Ayson seems bothered about several things:

  • the proposed ban on Huawei around the new 5G network (where he seems to treat Hauwei as some sort of normal company, even though Chinese law requires Hauwei to comply with government edicts, whether at home or abroad),
  • the recent GCSB statement –  in tandem with a number of other countries –  about the official PRC involvement in commercial cyber-theft,
  • the rather mild comments in the Strategic Defence Policy Statement last year, and
  • the speech in Washington in December by Winston Peters.

All this is the context of a flawed sense of how much China matters to New Zealand’s prosperity (“crucial” in his view).

Professor Ayson is not happy at all.

This shift may please friends in Canberra, Washington and Tokyo, who view China as an unrelenting full-spectrum menace. But New Zealand’s growing alignment with a faux Cold War posture runs against the tradition of foreign policy autonomy Labour-led governments have cherished in recent decades. 

(The same Labour-led governments that have had troops in Afghanistan and Iraq?)

Having an independent foreign policy means making your own choices about the medium-term interests of your own country.  It doesn’t mean never doing things, or sharing common views/interests, with friends and allies.  I’m not sure when Professor Ayson thinks any New Zealand governments ever acted otherwise (whether or not he –  or I – agreed with any or all of those stances –  be it involvement in the first Gulf War, providing a frigate at the time of the Falklands, Vietnam, Suez, or even our current deployment in Iraq).  But in the Ayson view of the world –  seemingly similar in practice to the Prime Minister’s –  an independent foreign policy seems to imply acting entirely on your own, never in concert with anyone, never acting for common interests and values, never acting with a quiet expectation of possible future reciprocal support.

Personally, I don’t think we should be taking a stronger stand against the PRC because, say, the United States is, but because it is in our own longer-term interests to do so –  both about the integrity of our own political system (recall, for example, the former PRC intelligence officer sitting in our Parliament, nominating other Beijing-associated people for honours), and about pushing back against international expansionism (particularly  by a state/regime with values inimical to our own).

But for Professor Ayson, somehow Trump and Brexit are reasons to stay cowering in the corner, deferring to the PRC.

There is one final, very small, fly in the ointment. It would be one thing to add New Zealand’s principled voice to an ensemble of China concern if the choir was unified and led by an internationally respected conductor. But has anyone seen how today’s conductor is behaving? In Donald Trump’s universe, traditional allies and close partners are at best expendable and at worst counter-productive. To the 45th president of the US, the rules-based order is barely relevant, including as it applies to trade. Things would be even worse if any of New Zealand’s remaining five eyes partners weren’t outward-looking models of political reasonableness. 

That’s called playing distraction (perhaps especially in the UK case where, whatever one makes of Brexit, the UK remains fully engaged in both NATO and Five Eyes, and has upped its commitment to this region, including naval patrols in the South China Sea).   You might not like everything about your friends and allies –  some might even be inconstant –  but you actually share values and interests with them.  Few New Zealanders share the values of the Chinese Communist Party or the state it tightly controls.

Ayson’s article ends weirdly.  He wants relations with Beijing strengthened, he wants “balance” back in our foreign and defence policy –  does he mean indifference to China’s consolidation of its hold on the South China Sea, indifference to its plays for influence in PNG, Vanuatu, Tonga, and (perhaps newly-independent) Bougainville), indifference to the growing threat to free and democratic Taiwan?  If so, perhaps he could say so directly.    But the weird bit isn’t that sort of alleged “realpolitik” but the final sentence

But especially in light of Beijing’s reprehensible conduct in Xinjiang, in which case, to borrow the prime minister’s own words, New Zealand needs to begin “Speaking up for what we believe in, standing up when our values are challenged,” this necessary readjustment will not get any easier.

After all it appears that he recognises something of the character of the regime.  But if –  as he says –  he wants the Prime Minister to start speaking up about that evil, it is unlikely to be a path that works towards sweeter and more harmonious relations with the PRC.  Decent people wouldn’t want it to.