Expert views: Impact of Trump and China on New Zealand

What does the impact of the Trump presidency, China's direction in Asia and security challenges in the region mean for New Zealand? The Asia Media Centre gathered some expert views from scholars of Asia and US-China relations at the sidelines of the Trump, China and the Region symposium.

On engaging with the US and China

robert ayson prof strategic studies vuw

There's a need for New Zealand to engage with the two powers in a more nuanced manner, says Robert Ayson (Victoria University of Wellington):

"[Media, analysts, and political leaders need] greater acknowledgement that the economic and security dimensions of our relationships with the US and China are intertwined.

"We tend to have this dichotomy between treating China as just a trade partner, and focussing on the security relationship with the US. I’d like to see an approach that takes both countries seriously, but not just in a way where you think about one as economic and one as military.

"A bit more complexity [is needed] ... That means the business community will have more of an interest in the security side. And people like me who work on strategic issues need to be more conscious of the economic side. These things are connected."

Inner workings of China a blur

bates gill prof asia pacific strategic studies anu

New Zealand’s approach to China is often based on a thin grasp of Chinese domestic politics and perspectives, says Bates Gill (Australia National University):

“We’re always going to have an information gap on what we can hear coming out of the US, versus what we hear from China.

"It’s rare for outsiders to get a true insight about what Beijing leaders and strategists are thinking. That’s a big problem. [The effect is that] Australians and New Zealanders end up getting a rather rosy picture being portrayed out of China about China’s role and intentions, and about its magnanimous approach to international relations.”

Not too close for comfort

Toshihiro Nakayama (Keio University) says New Zealand's geographic isolation influences its attitude towards China:

“You [New Zealand] can see China’s rise from a distance. You can take away the benefits of their economic prosperity without feeling the potential uncertainty of their political and military rise. On that point, New Zealand and Japan see a very different Asia or China.”

China's view of its role in the Asia-Pacific

merriden varrall lowy institute

Chinese elites have a "deliberately constructed and maintained" worldview that shapes China's foreign relations, says Merriden Varrall (Lowy Institute for International Policy).

She observes four characteristics of their perspective:

  • The adoption of a cultural framework where China is portrayed as peaceful and equal, and the US as expansionist and interfering.
  • A belief that China's weaknesses and hardships are caused by the West and the impact of imperialism on China.
  • An approach which views the region as a family with hierarchical relations, layers of reciprocity and obligations, and which situates China at the centre.
  • A belief that China’s history of greatness will ensure its inevitable return as a great world power.

Effect of Trump-led US on regional ties

The inability for the US to portray itself as a world leader on values under a Trump presidency creates challenges for regional dynamics, say academics.

  • Rob Ayson (Victoria University of Wellington) says the notion of China replacing the US in the region is concerning: “New Zealand’s natural inclinations, in terms of our values, lead us in the US direction. China just can’t fill that gap. The US and China have different strengths.”
  • There are no alternatives to the US-Japan alliance, says Toshihiro Nakayama (Keio University): “The US is a nation with which Japan shares values the most. That becomes a tricky question under the Trump administration. Can we take our shared values for granted? In a minimal sense, on things such as democracy, stability and a rules-based regional order, I think we do see eye to eye, even with a Trump administration. So, whoever the president is, we would have to try to achieve good relations with the US. That’s the only option we have.”
  • Despite some positive developments in the US-China relationship such as the Trump-Xi summit in April 2017, Bates Gill (Australia National University) says the outlook for the region looks bleak: “Nothing coming out of these conversations so far gives me a lot of confidence that the next year is going to be a good year for US-China, and broader Asia-Pacific, relations. And that’s worrisome.”

Experts on Asia and US-China relations gathered at the Victoria University of Wellington to discuss key issues at the Trump, China and the Region conference on 4 May 2017. The symposium was organised by the Centre for Strategic Studies and the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre. 

– Asia Media Centre


*All pictures courtesy Victoria University of Wellington Image Services