Michael Gardiner is a graduate student in International Relations at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He can be found on Twitter @Mikey_Gardiner_. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: As China continues to extend its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, this influence could be addressed by the development of security institutions.
Date Originally Written: February 2, 2021.
Date Originally Published: March 15, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the point of view of New Zealand’s security calculus and whether it should join the “QUAD Plus” if given the opportunity. The author believes a shift in New Zealand’s view of the Indo-Pacific can take advantage of regional changes in a “New Cold War.”
Background: The emergence of a New Cold War between the United States and China has catalysed significant changes to the Indo-Pacific’s security outlook. While not completely analogous to the original Cold War, there are discernible similarities between the past and the present. New security institutions have been created by both sides for the purposes of strategic competition. China has established alternative geo-economic institutions in the region such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and is interested in establishing alternative regional security institutions similar to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. A reinvigorated Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which features the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, has been touted as a forthcoming “Asian North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)” by U.S. officials, and appears to be purpose-built to contain China’s regional ambitions.
China is naturally displeased with the QUAD’s revival, criticising the institution as representing a “Cold War mentality” and labelling it a “big underlying security risk.” While its institutional arrangements are still relatively shallow, high-level meetings between QUAD officials has become more frequent since 2017. The QUAD harbours greater ambitions as a nascent NATO-esque institution in the Indo-Pacific. Expansion of QUAD membership in the long-term is possible, with the QUAD Plus incorporating New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam during a meeting in early 2020 at the vice-ministerial level.
Significance: The formation of a QUAD Plus is underestimated in terms of its significance to the region’s geopolitics. While the QUAD currently lacks the institutional requirements to fulfil its role as an Asian NATO, the idea of formalising QUAD into a collective security arrangement is gaining momentum. Other states will need to decide on how they will secure themselves in a new era of “Great Power Competition,” especially if they are pressured into choosing between the United States and China. The QUAD Plus membership requirements will be scrutinised by small states such as New Zealand, who rely heavily on trade with China for economic prosperity but lean on traditional partners for security. If the QUAD Plus becomes a viable security institution modelled off NATO in the future, New Zealand will need to assess its strategic options and interrogate the price of admission.
Option #1: New Zealand continues with the status quo – a hedging strategy which balances its economic relationship with China and security relationship with the United States. Under this option, New Zealand does not join the QUAD Plus.
Risk: New Zealand’s credibility among its traditional security partners takes another hit. New Zealand has already been singled out for being the “soft underbelly” of Five Eye. After New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor suggested Australia should show more respect to China in January 2021, an Australian newspaper referred to the country as “New Xi-Land.” Not joining the QUAD Plus could negatively impact New Zealand’s reputation and endanger its traditional security partnerships.
Gain: A more flexible strategy allows New Zealand to better navigate uncertainty. New Zealand affords itself time and greater manoeuvrability if the United States retrenches to focus on domestic issues. New Zealand can continue to reap the benefits of its free trade deal with China. This option can build on the Washington Declaration by improving New Zealand’s bilateral security relationship with the United States. New Zealand also remains a member of Five Eyes, thus securing the best of both worlds.
Option #2: New Zealand officially recognises China as a threat to the rules-based international order by joining the QUAD Plus.
Risk: Risks in this option include the high likelihood of jeopardising New Zealand’s economic relationship with China. New Zealand will have paid close attention to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy towards Australia, after China imposed punitive trade sanctions on Australian goods, restricted imports, and accused Australia of dumping wine. As New Zealand recovers from the economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, angering China by joining the QUAD Plus could hinder New Zealand’s economic recovery, should Beijing set an example of New Zealand through measures comparable to those used in the Australian case. Depending on its level of institutionalisation, the QUAD Plus could significantly restrict New Zealand’s strategic options and tie the country down to unattractive commitments.
Gain: New Zealand improves upon its moral standing as a defender of the rules-based international order. New Zealand’s reputation abroad as a fair-minded, peaceful nation improves the legitimacy and viability of the QUAD Plus as a bona-fide alliance network, attracting other countries in the region to join the institution. Membership within the QUAD Plus offers greater opportunities to diversify supply chains and develop stronger relationships with players like India. This option signals a renewed commitment to traditional security partners, avoiding the risks of Option #1.
Other Comments: None.
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