Jacinda and the Quad

Jacinda and the Quad

Brian Stoddart puts recent Australian attacks on New Zealand’s internationally popular Prime Minister into a global context.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is now numbered among that rare enough political species, more loved abroad than at home. Welcomed more, as it were, by Stephen Colbert than Stephen and Stephanie of Canterbury. There are reasons for that: COVID, ill-advised policies, too much too soon, ambition outweighing practicality and theory outstripping practice. Even so, the general attack now being rained on her and her Labour government by The Australian newspaper, especially the particular one against New Zealand’s approach to China in the current global free for all, is astonishing. 

Now, one reason for this is quite obviously the Murdoch-owned Oz’s not so much lurch as Olympic gold medal leap to the right, which puts Ardern so much further to the left than anything the Australian Labor Party can produce. But it also has much to do with the Quad and Australia’s messianic vision for that as part of a holy alliance with the United States against China’s massive inroads on the Pacific.

All the Ardern government said on China was that it would be best if no one in the Pacific had to “pick sides” and that resolution was best reached by negotiation. That is, Pacific governments should be free to make their own choices about alliances and agreements. In the world of normal statecraft that would and should be unexceptionable. The problem is that for some quarters, at least (include the Australian here), the world is not normal. And for Australia, it most certainly has not been since the Solomon Islands government effectively did a strategic alliance deal with China, to the chagrin and surprise of Canberra which under the recently departed Liberal-Country Party coalition had neglected its neighbours for years, as had governments of both hues before that.

New Zealand and Australia both have had issues in the Pacific, notably in dealing with Fiji since the first coup in the 1980s, but New Zealand has perhaps been more engaged by way of migration arrangements with key states and more elaborated support programs. Australia has been involved with aid programs, but less so in recent years since AusAID was folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the aid budget slashed. Some critics see that as sensible, though, on the basis of value for money. And it is fair to say New Zealand has not produced the sort of controversy Australia did in its “spying” campaign on Timor-Leste. The new Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, is to be congratulated for having quashed remaining charges on this affair.

At this point, it is worth asking if the Australian actually considers New Zealand to be part of the Pacific. In another extraordinary spray, “The Mocker” has lit into Ardern and New Zealand for being freeloaders, spongers, derelicts and much else. Why? Basically because Ardern had Albanese see sense over closer economic arrangements that clearly worked against New Zealand. Australian permanent residents in New Zealand can vote. Their counterparts in Australia cannot, and face a tougher by far road to citizenship. That meant many New Zealanders long resident in Australia, in some cases a lifetime, could be deported and were.

Ardern and Albanese have fixed that but “The Mocker” thinks it inequitable on the basis of numbers. That is the sort of logic by which Wallaby supporters claim to be better than the All Blacks rugby team because they are selected from lower numbers of contenders. To be fair, though, many Kiwis would allow that those Wallaby numbers do come from a low rugby gene pool.

But now we have the new Anthony Albanese-led Labor administration trying to make up for lost time in the Pacific by reassuring the Solomons and anyone else in earshot that we are all “family” with things to be solved by having a hug. This is mendicant enough, and contrasts starkly with the “take it or leave it” approach to China that shows little sign of abatement despite a change of government. Because that new government is as closely aligned with Washington as the previous Liberal one. Labor luminaries for years have been great devotees of American politics and effectively the American mission. Some of that goes back to Australia’s own World War Two “pivot to America” in a time of dire need. Ever since, Labor and Liberal alike have supported American-led ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a recent incident confirms Australia’s aerial activity in the “freedom of navigation” program spearheaded by the Americans in the South China Sea.

It should be noted here that the previous Liberal government in its last days became irate when a quite-within-its-rights Chinese naval vessel sailed down the Western Australian coast allegedly near sensitive naval communications centres (run by the Americans for years), yet arced up when the Chinese quizzed that Australian plane doing the same thing in the South China Sea.

In similar vein, that duality is on display in relation to India. Led by the media and backed by defence-funded organisations like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and others like the National Security College at the Australian National University, the Australian position is that national defence systems must be ramped up massively in order to counter the Chinese physically and materially if necessary. So the Quad is supposed to cast India and Japan in there with exactly the same mind set as the Americans (and for which read Australia).

Unfortunately, life is not that simple. Bewilderment broke out when India would not automatically line up in condemnation of both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s tacit acceptance of the Russian position. It seems to have been something of a surprise to many “experts” that India has had a long and deeply involved relationship with Russia since and in some ways long before Independence in 1947. And that includes a heavy reliance on Russian-sourced defence infrastructure.

The further wrinkle, too, is that Australia is escalating ties with India as a potential replacement economic partner because the present diplomatic ice age has shredded ties with China. Right now, the state government of Western Australia alone has a one hundred party plus trade delegation in India while a host of agreements and partnerships at the bilateral level are being mounted.

Complexities arise inevitably. One of the major spears being chucked at China concerns its policies against the Muslim Uighurs. In fact, for many critics that is the major problem with China. Yet all these trade ties and all the rest with India are ignoring totally the on-going anti-Muslim campaigns being waged by supporters in and some politicians of the ruling BJP party. There have also been attacks against Christians as well.

The same partisan approach occurs at another level. There has been much criticism of the Chinese government’s interference in the lives of Chinese students in Australia, and that has fed into the anti-China campaign. What has gone largely unremarked, however, has been the resignation of several India-expert scholars from the Australia India Institute because of similar official interference in academic seminars,  meetings and activities.

Does that relate to the attack on Ardern? In several respects, yes. There has for years, for example, been an Australian sniping at the Kiwi presence in the Five Eyes security arrangements over intelligence sharing. Then there is the New Zealand ban on visits by nuclear submarines and ships. That has become problematic as the push towards nuclear submarines has taken sway in Canberra and led to the fiasco that ended France’s contractual arrangements to deliver submarines to Australia.

So New Zealand has taken an independent and genuinely collaborative bilateral approach to the new conditions in the Pacific, and that has gone down poorly with the instant reactors in Canberra via Washington and their media/think tank acolytes. There is much more to come here, it seems.



Brian Stoddart is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia where he served as Vice-Chancellor, a higher education consultant internationally, a regular commentator on global issues, cruise ship lecturer, and a crime fiction writer.

Image: mia! via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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