Preparing for a Cold War: Could a non-aligned New Zealand work?

With the recent announcement of AUKUS – a trilateral security agreement between the US, UK, and Australia – the Sino-American relationship has reached a new low.

Although there have long been prognostications of the emergence of a Cold War, the speed of the deterioration of Sino-American relations has been somewhat shocking.

Despite many of the ingredients of the original Cold War missing – especially with regards to the distribution of power and the role of ideology – along with the continued presence of significant trade interdependence, it is clear that mutual threat perceptions have emerged and that the US is creating a nascent anti-China bloc.

Australia, evident in its recent memberships in AUKUS and the Quad, has clearly chosen its pathway: aligning itself with the United States (at the expense of its relations with China).

But, New Zealand, however, has attempted to stay out of the growing tensions (much to the chagrin of Australia).

Since signing a free trade agreement with China in 2008, New Zealand has pursued what can be termed an “asymmetrical hedge” strategy in which New Zealand maintained an alignment with the US’ security apparatus – by virtue of being in Five Eyes and ANZUS – while simultaneously deepening economic ties with China.

A hedging strategy is popular with smaller powers that reside in regional settings with two or more greater powers because it allows them to avoid the inherent trade-offs of having to choose a side. 

New Zealand has certainly benefited from having a stable security crutch (in the US) while being able to increase trade ties with China.

Until recently, the geopolitical environment New Zealand found itself was heavily conducive to hedging. China and the US were not direct competitors and although China’s rise had caused issues in its neighbourhood (e.g. South China Sea dispute and the border dispute with India), New Zealand was far enough away that it did not pose any major security dilemmas.

Even in the wake of numerous diplomatic incidents in 2021 between China and the US (and many of its allies), the aim of maintaining a middle ground between China and the US remains New Zealand’s putative strategy. New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta’s, first official policy speech was summarised as laying out of strategy of “China for trade, US for defence, and Pacific at the centre”.

The issue for New Zealand is that the increased tension between China and the US is shrinking the room for hedging. In other words, as Sino-American relations continue to deteriorate towards something akin to a Cold War, the potential for New Zealand to maintain its middle ground will be significantly eroded.

If New Zealand is forced to choose a side, most experts would envisage New Zealand following Australia’s footsteps and firmly aligning itself with the US’ anti-China bloc. This is for good reason as the prospect of New Zealand turning its back on its oldest friends and bandwagoning China’s rise – especially given China’s increasingly totalitarianism and international bellicosity – seems completely out of the question.

But there is another option New Zealand could consider if a Cold War did emerge between China and the US: non-alignment. Non-alignment was the brainchild of five leaders of relatively smaller powers in the early Cold War: Tito (Yugoslavia), Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), Nkrumah (Ghana), and Nasser (Egypt).

Although this group of five represented an eclectic collection of states, their common desire was to avoid the zero-sum competition of the Cold War and to try and forge positive relations with both the US and Soviet Union.

Thus, non-alignment is a more modest form of a hedge than an asymmetrical one because although the smaller power still attempts to forge positive relations with both sides, they forgo any efforts to formalise relations to the same extent (especially eschewing any security alignment).

During the original Cold War, Yugoslavia and India had quite a lot of success with non-alignment (the other founding countries succumbed to internal strife). Yugoslavia, due to Tito being in power for the majority of the Cold War, became the poster child of successful non-alignment as it was able to stay independent of Soviet control while also reaping the benefits of having relations with the more prosperous capitalist countries in the West.

Non-alignment might be attractive to New Zealand, especially as avoiding being sucked into the increasing zero-sum tension of the Sino-American relationship appears to be a major goal of the Ardern government at the moment.

For Ardern and the Labour government, non-alignment might be attractive, especially to avoid the tension between China and the US. 

New Zealand has some advantages, which Yugoslavia (or the others) did not, that make non-alignment attractive. Firstly, New Zealand is very small and is extremely non-threatening. Secondly, New Zealand is geographically isolated.

Furthermore, although increasingly belligerent, China has not undertaken the kind of expansionism, material or ideological, that the Soviet Union did. Yugoslavia, for instance, not only came under serious ideological coercion from Moscow, it was nearly invaded by Stalin in 1951 (partly due to its insistence on pursuing a non-aligned pathway).

New Zealand is currently not under threat of a similar attack from China.  

One of the successes of Tito’s non-alignment strategy was that he was able to spread the idea and then solidify relations with those countries through creating country-to-country friendships. Creating an institutionalised group – officially, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – helped give the non-aligners an international voice as well as diffuse the threats of the Cold War, making the prospect of non-aligning less risky for smaller powers.

Being completely isolated during a hypothetical Cold War is certainly not an attractive scenario, so New Zealand would have to find other smaller powers to join them in choosing non-alignment. Some Southeast Asian countries – Malaysia and Indonesia come to mind – and South Pacific countries – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu are current members of NAM – could find the idea of a new form of non-alignment attractive, especially as many of these countries have already been employing hedging strategies to manage China’s rise.


Non-alignment is not a 'silver bullet' but should be considered.

The only area of concern about choosing a pathway of non-alignment is how vulnerable New Zealand is to non-traditional security challenges, especially cyberattacks (this threat did not exist during the original Cold War). At this stage, it is clear New Zealand is dependent on the technological support of the US (and its other large allies) to protect itself from the cyber power that China can exert. Creating domestic capacity is an essential aspect of effective hedging.

Non-alignment is clearly not a silver bullet for New Zealand to manage the worsening situation between China and the US. But it is a strategy that should be seriously considered as an option as getting sucked into the great power politics of a potential Cold War should be seen as extremely undesirable in Wellington.

New Zealand has long prided itself on its independent foreign policy and maintaining that resolve moving forward, despite looming challenges, remains the optimal foreign policy on the table.

 - Asia Media Centre