A gloomy outlook: Anna Fifield suggests the need for greater public discussion of New Zealand's relationship with China.

Date01 July 2023
AuthorFifield, Anna

I am commenting not as an academic or an expert, but based on my experience during two decades as a foreign correspondent. I also have to point out that I am an optimist, a glass-half-full kind of person, but that will not be clear based on what I am about to state. It is pretty gloomy stuff.

The world has changed markedly over the year and a bit since Russia invaded Ukraine, and in ways that would have been unimaginable at the start of 2022. Japan has dramatically increased its defence spending. The United States has secured four new bases in the Philippines. The United States, United Kingdom and Australia have announced the details of their AUKUS submarine deal--and invited New Zealand to talk about it. Finland has joined NATO and Sweden is likely to join soon.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has shown he will stop at nothing to try to eke out some kind of victory in Ukraine, or to silence his rivals. And in China, President Xi Jinping has cemented his grip on power and made it abundantly clear that China is no longer a one-party state but a one-person state. Together, Xi and Putin have been busy trying to make the world a friendlier place for autocrats. But while Putin is focused on relatively short-term goals around Russia's borders, Xi has a much bigger vision: he wants to reshape the rules and principles of the international order to make space for his authoritarian system--preferably at the top of that order.

More than any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world has been divided into two camps. This schism dominates my working day, as I oversee the China coverage for a major American news outlet, and that is what I will discuss here. I will also discuss how it affects New Zealand, and what challenges I see ahead. I think there is far too little discussion in New Zealand about China and how we are going to deal with it. It is unrealistic to think that New Zealand will be able to continue threading the needle. That is because we have already chosen sides--we have chosen the side of democracy, or the rules-based international order, of universal human rights.

Lowest ebb

On United States-China relations, it is not an exaggeration to say that relations are at their lowest ebb since normalisation began in the 1970s. Indeed, after the editor of the Economist visited Beijing for the first time in four years recently, the magazine put on its cover: 'US v China--It's worse than you think'. I think this division is only going to get worse over the next eighteen months as the United States heads into presidential election season. We can expect politicians to try to outdo each other to show how tough they are on China. Already some candidates are using phrases that sound a lot like calling for regime change.

While positions have hardened in the United States, this shift has been driven almost entirely by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping. China under Xi has changed dramatically in the past five years in particular. It...

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