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Challenge will?be staying?friends with both US and China

Opinion Piece

The lightning visit of United States vice-president Joe Biden last week, overshadowed as it has been by other events overseas, marks the end of an era in some ways and the start of a period of new risks for this country.

In saying the US would accept an invitation for a warship to come here for the New Zealand navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations, Biden confirmed a softening in the attitude between the two countries that has existed since the 1980s — starting with the flotilla that blocked the USS Buchanan in 1985.

The 1987 nuclear ships ban was the hallmark of David Lange’s time as prime minister and in many ways his greatest legacy. It led to the US withdrawing from the ANZUS alliance and lingering animosity between our countries.

A gradual thawing of relations and changing geopolitical realities led to what is essentially a US backdown. New Zealand retains its ban on nuclear-armed ships and the independent foreign policy setting it has followed for the past three decades.

Biden, a career politician, was here to support the stance by President Barack Obama that the US remains a Pacific power and is “rebalancing” its interests here. This comes at a time of increasing tension between the world’s two super powers.

China says it will ignore a UN tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines in a case arising from China’s occupation and massive construction efforts on small islands and reefs in the South China Sea which are claimed more legitimately by other nations.

That raises the unlikely but worrying prospect of actual armed conflict with the US, which says it will continue to fly through air space claimed by China.

The situation is a huge concern for New Zealand because China is such an important trading partner, and half of our maritime trade passes through this area.

It is going to require some real diplomatic skill on the part of our government to avoid upsetting China in this dispute, which stems from its outlandish claims and aggressive posturing. Despite his charm, Biden has left this country with a dilemma to work through.