Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Fiji Water- Stuck In Viti Levu?

In a follow up to earlier SiFM postings on Fiji Water here (1) and here (2). 

Croz Walsh comments on the Fiji Water issue.

Another interesting and eye-opening take on the owners of Fiji Water, was outlined by John Gilber's in-depth article, featured in Earth Island web magazine.

The entire excerpt of John Gilber's article:

Lost In the Valley of Excess

California’s wealthiest growers, poorest workers, and the water between them…

By John Gibler

A newcomer arriving into California’s San Joaquin Valley – the most lucrative and industrialized agricultural region in the United States – might think that the entire place is burning. On the horizon in all directions the brown hue of the air suggests a distant fire. As the traveler advances along, say, Highway 99, the fire appears to peel away, a deep stain floating off in the distance, as if forever clinging to the edges of the sky. Upon moving farther in, one slowly realizes that the blaze does not recede. The traveler does not move toward the fire, but within it.

The arid San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country, a daily cloud of smog and soot that rises from interstate automobile traffic, the belching of a few million cows packed into mega-dairies, the incineration of toxic waste, and the constant fueling of irrigation pumps and food processing plants – all weaving a faded yellow curtain that hangs in the air.

... After a series of backroom negotiations, the state signed over the Kern Water Bank
to five water districts and a private company. The private company, Westside Mutual Water Company, is a paper company
owned by the Resnicks, and the water districts are controlled by agribusinesses, including Paramount....

In a region where so much is burning, nothing is more valuable than water.

No one knows this better than Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of one of the biggest privately held agribusiness corporations in the United States – Roll International – or, as their website proclaims: “the largest privately held company you’ve never heard of.” Roll’s holdings include Paramount Farming, the largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios in the world; Paramount Citrus; Fiji Water; Suterra, a pesticide brand; Teleflora; PomWonderful; and the Neptune Pacific Line, a global shipping company.

A large part of the Resnicks’ billion-dollar business entails growing more than 5 million trees in the cracked and dry Westside soil of the San Joaquin Valley, where rain doesn’t fall and rivers do not flow. Kern County receives only five inches of rainfall a year and most of its aquifers have been depleted, contaminated, or both. None of Paramount’s pistachio or almond trees would survive without the daily application of irrigation water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and down the length of the California Aqueduct.

Over the past two decades, the Resnicks have been at the heart of the most controversial moves in California water politics. When the Resnicks began buying land here in the 1980s from Mobil and Texaco, they acquired contracts for California State Water Project deliveries from the California Aqueduct. From far behind the scenes they helped rewrite the contracts that govern the California State Water Project, commandeered a $74 million dollar state water bank, and encouraged Senator Dianne Feinstein to intervene on behalf of agribusiness in the conflicts over the ecological collapse of the Delta.

The Resnicks’ political involvement is driven by a simple force: money. The Resnicks have made a lot of it over the past 20 years by hoarding state water resources in ways now being challenged in court. In a land of outrageous poverty, the Resnicks have built a billion-dollar fortune by growing trees with water from an artificial river while the migrant workers who tend the irrigation pumps don’t have access to potable water in their homes.

The ecology of the entire Central Valley, from Redding to Bakersfield, has been remade over the past 150 years by the engineered movement of water for large-scale agriculture in the valley and real estate development on the coast. “The Westside contains very marginal land that never should have been irrigated,” said Richard Walker, professor of geography at UC Berkeley and author of The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. “The California Aqueduct was for the Westside, toxic land.”

The Eastside was subdivided and sold in the 1880s for small, lucrative, irrigated farms, Walker told me. “The good water was developed early,” he said. “The post-1940 dams and big canals are to make up for dry areas.”

Started during the Great Depression, the federal Central Valley Project contains 20 dams and 500 miles of canals able to store and move about 9 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot, roughly the amount of water consumed by two families of four in a year.) Advocates at the time argued that the Central Valley Project would enable farmers to pump less water from underground. Instead, growers used the subsidized federal water to bring 3 million new acres into irrigated production, and continued pumping all the same.

Jealous landowners of vast barren tracts on the Westside of the southern San Joaquin saw the bonanza of the Central Valley Project and demanded a project of their own. The result of their lobbying efforts is the California State Water Project. Constructed in the 1960s, the project includes 19 dams, 10 energy plants, 20 pumping stations, and a 444-mile concrete river: the California Aqueduct.

When the Resnicks went shopping for agricultural land in the late 1980s – looking for a “passive investment” Stewart Resnick told one reporter – the Westside is where they went. Soon after the Resnicks bought into the Westside, multiple drought years between 1987 and 1994 proved that the artificial bounty of the California Aqueduct would not be enough to protect their investment. They needed a back-up plan.

Executives and lawyers working for Paramount thus engineered the takeover of nearly 20,000 acres of state property where the California Department of Water Resources had invested $74 million to turn a depleted aquifer alongside the Kern River into an underground reservoir, or water bank, capable of storing one million acre-feet of water. After a series of backroom negotiations, the state signed over the Kern Water Bank to five water districts and a private company. The private company, Westside Mutual Water Company, is a paper company owned by the Resnicks, and the water districts are controlled by agribusinesses, including Paramount.

The Resnicks’ water grab hasn’t gone unopposed. On June 3, 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity and a group of six plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the private control of the water bank. A separate lawsuit filed by a smaller pistachio grower alleges that the Resnicks sold water from the Kern Water Bank for a profit, a violation of state public utilities law. Still another lawsuit filed by Kern County water districts asked the court to halt pumping from the bank and investigate how much water can be drawn without drying up local wells. The Fresno Bee reported that the water table has fallen by 115 feet in just three years, an unprecedented drop. Three of the last four years were dry, and almond and pistachio trees cannot go that long without water.

Roberto Guerra

“They say just one person is the owner of all this,” says one farmworker.
“But who knows, because it‘s a lot.”

Beyond the legal technicalities lie larger questions of how vital natural resources should be managed. With the takeover of the Kern Water Bank, a public asset that could have been used to supply clean water to nearby farmworkers’ towns – and as a drought-relief water bank for both small towns and farmers – was instead used to safeguard the water supply of almond and pistachio trees in the desert for a Beverly Hills billionaire couple. Since taking over the Kern Water Bank, Paramount has more than doubled its production of almonds and pistachios, becoming the largest grower and processor of the nuts in the world. And the Resnicks made the Forbes list of billionaires.

aramount Farming lists two headquarters: Los Angeles and Lost Hills. The contrast could not be sharper. The Resnicks’ Beverly Hills home looks more like an embassy than a house and the couple controls more water than any other single agribusiness in the state. The farmworkers of Lost Hills live in mobile homes and cannot drink the water from their taps. The crops they tend drink better, and cheaper, water than they do.
Lost Hills is entirely flat. There are no hills there, lost or otherwise, though the Coastal Range foothills can sometimes be seen through the valley haze some 30 miles off to the west. But to the casual traveler the place would probably seem lost.

“There is nothing here,” Ana Chavez, who works at the Lost Hills Utility District, told me. “This is a forgotten community. And you know why? Because it is a community of all Hispanics.”

A visit to the town reveals the intertwined fates of water and migrant laborers in California agriculture: Both are pulled hundreds of miles from their places of origin and used to extract wealth from the land. Lost Hills, which stretches for about two hundred yards on either side of Highway 46 in the northwestern corner of Kern County, is a twenty-first century company town.

During the pounding heat of a summer day most people here are out working in the fields; those at home take refuge indoors from the sun. Only children seem to venture out, spraying each other with garden hoses and seeking out patches of shade in which to play. Around 4 p.m., cars and vans start rolling back into town: Men and women emerge, shoulders hunched, carrying small coolers, and walk, exhausted, to their doors. Many stop off at the Village Market store to buy bottled water or fill up five-gallon jugs at a vending machine.

Bordered by oil fields to the west and surrounded by thousands of acres of almond and pistachio orchards to the south, north, and east, Lost Hills has a population of 1,938, according to the 2000 census, and about double that according to those who live here. There is one traffic light in town; postal service consists of a small trailer with P.O. boxes. There is no bank, no pharmacy, and no local government. All public affairs must be conducted in Bakersfield, about 40 miles to the southeast. A small community health clinic, elementary school, local utility district, and county fire station make up the social services available. Two small food stores, a barbershop, an auto repair shop, and three taco trucks, called loncheras, comprise the local commerce. The nearest place to deposit a check or go to a supermarket is Wasco, 20 miles away.

Lost Hills is 96.7 percent Hispanic according to the census, which also reports that nearly 70 percent of the population was born in Latin America. One resident charted the local demographics this way: “There are only two gabacho families here.” (Gabacho, a term used widely in Mexico, refers to a person from the United States.)

The homes are small, single story, simple, and clean, the yards and porches without clutter. There are two trailer parks, each with over a hundred mobile homes slotted one next to the other in rows and circles, everything sun-bleached and worn, and everything impeccably well cared for. If abandoned is the first descriptive term to come to mind here, it is followed soon by dignified. These are working people, and their work ethic can be read in their tidy houses and mobile homes and inside their spotless kitchens. At the same time, the community is unmistakably poor. Thirty percent of the people in Lost Hills receive incomes below the federal poverty level. Nearly everyone labors in the fields for minimum wage.

Yet Lost Hills is only one degree of separation from the stuff of fairytale wealth and glamour, for nearly everyone in town works for the Resnicks.

The Resnicks live in a Beverly Hills mansion on Sunset Boulevard that has been compared, favorably, to the Palace of Versailles. Amy Wilentz, one of few writers to gain access to the Resnicks’ home and publish an account of her visit, described walking through the Resnicks’ house with Lynda as “like taking a tour of pre-Revolutionary France.” Wilentz also cited a “vanity essay” penned by Lynda Resnick that describes her house as “topped off on all four sides with rows of balustrades through which a queen might peek out and utter, ‘Let them eat cake.’”

The Los Angeles Business Journal estimates the Resnicks’ worth at $1.79 billion. During the recession, when the San Joaquin Valley became an epicenter of unemployment and home foreclosures, the Resnicks saw their fortune grow by about $300 million. During the dry years, when pumping from the Kern Water Bank caused the local water table to drop 115 feet, the Resnicks were making bank. The couple is what the nonprofit world likes to call “major donors.” They’ve given over $4 million to political campaigns, according to a recent California Watch analysis. In 2009, the Resnicks gave $55 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The per capita income in Lost Hills in 2000 was $8,317. The Resnicks handed the LA art scene more than double the combined income of the entire population of Lost Hills.

Many of Paramount’s 120,000 acres of orchards surround Lost Hills, and the Paramount Farms processing plant is located about 15 miles away. Everyone I met in Lost Hills either worked for Paramount, had worked for Paramount, or was related to someone – or several people – who work for Paramount. All of the laborers worked for between $8 and $8.65 an hour. No one made more.

Aurelio (the names of current Paramount employees have been changed to protect their identities) works for Paramount seven days a week for a total of 62 hours at $8.65 an hour, no overtime. Farm labor is given overtime only after a 10-hour day and a 60-hour workweek under a law that State Senator Dean Florez, a Democrat from the nearby town of Shafter, is trying to change. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill at the end of the 2010 legislative session.

...The Resnicks live in a Beverly Hills mansion on Sunset Boulevard
that has been compared, favorably, to the
Palace of Versailles...

Aurelio is an irrigator; there is no rest for his labor. He has worked at Paramount for 13 years. When asked about his lack of a day off, he responded: “Those little trees always have to get their water because it is very hot.”

Aurelio, his wife, and three children live in a small, clean mobile home in a trailer park and pay $450 a month in rent. Aurelio talks about his work as if recounting tales of adventure – when he speaks his voice lifts and his eyes widen. He has followed jobs from Mexico City to Texas, Los Angeles to Lost Hills. He said of his years of labor: “When one likes to work, it’s very beautiful.” He had no harsh words for his supervisors or employers at Paramount, though he did not know much about the latter.

In 2009, the Resnicks handed the LA art scene more than double the combined income of every person living in Lost Hills.

“They say just one person is the owner of all this,” he said. “but who knows, because it’s a lot.”

“They have a runway near the plant,” he said of the Resnicks’ private airport. “Sometimes they visit for New Year’s. If there is an employee lunch they get in line for food just like the rest of us. They seem like good people. They don’t behave like they feel they are better than us. They eat at the same table.”

Another Paramount farmworker, Fernando, hails from Chiapas in far southern Mexico and has been in Lost Hills for seven years, scraping together money to send back to his wife and son. He works 58 hours a week for Paramount: 10 hours a day during the week and eight on Saturday. He earns $8 an hour. He said: “Paramount supports you more than others. They provide equipment. For example, if you’re going to apply pesticides they provide the gloves and goggles; others don’t do that.”

Asked roughly how many field workers are undocumented, he said: “If not 100 percent, then the majority. If they had their papers in order they would get other jobs. Do you really think that someone with the proper papers is going to be killing themselves for $8 when at least they’ll get $11 at another job?”

No one working for Paramount spoke an ill word of the company, though the family members of employees and ex-employees I spoke with did. One man who had worked more than ten years for the company told of being fired after a knee injury on the job. He had to go to court to force the company to pay for his surgery. Most other complaints had to do with the company’s low wages.

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley farmworkers are pushed to the outer limits of labor laws, working the maximum number of hours for the minimum pay. One can understand a small farmer forced to pay low wages by the brutal hardship of the global market and competition with larger growers. But if anyone could pay living wages to employees and still turn a profit, it would be Paramount.

One woman – who used to work for Paramount and whose two sons work there now, and who asked that I not use her name because, “this is a small town” – said of the Paramount pay scale: “These are hunger wages.”

I walked into Paramount’s Lost Hills office one day last July to see if I could speak to someone there. I was given a phone number in Los Angeles for Roll International. I called and was asked to call back. I did and was routed to a recorded message. I left a message after the tone, as instructed. No one returned my call.

Years earlier, while working on another investigation, I also called Roll International to request an interview. That time the receptionist told me straight: “We don’t give information to the public.” When I asked her to whom I should address my research questions she responded, “I suggest you don’t research us.” Then she hung up.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta used to be the region where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers would meet, pool for hundreds of square miles, and slowly drain into the San Francisco Bay and out to sea through the Golden Gate. Not anymore. The San Joaquin River is mostly diverted for irrigation before it can reach the Delta and the Sacramento is largely lifted out of the southern tip of the Delta and pumped down the San Joaquin Valley for irrigation.

Today, the Delta is a work of human engineering built over 150 years that consists of thousands of miles of levees, emaciated river flows, immense pumps, bromide and mercury contamination, endangered species, and below sea level “islands” housing communities and farms that would most likely be under water within hours of a major earthquake.

Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley have effectively had their water privatized.

The Delta is the hub of California’s water engineering system and the current focal point of the state’s infamous water wars. Environmentalists and Delta communities want to reduce water exports. Irrigators in the San Joaquin and their strange bedfellows in the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which draws water pumped through the Delta, want to increase water exports. There is one thing all sides agree on: The Delta is a disaster waiting to explode.

In 2005, populations of several fish species used to gauge the overall health of the Delta ecosystem plummeted toward extinction. “The Delta is ill. Gravely ill,” wrote Contra Costa Times reporter Mike Taugher at the beginning of a five-part investigative series on the ecological crisis in the Delta. “After decades of decline, the Delta’s vital signs have suddenly plunged to new depths.”

Several Delta fish species hang on the verge of collapse, but the tiny, endangered Delta Smelt has become the cause célèbre for environmental lawsuits seeking to stop Delta pumping and the bête noir for agribusiness lobbyists who claim that attempts to save the inch-long minnow come at the expense of jobs.

But the idea of a battle between fish and farmers is a false dichotomy. The fish in question is an indicator species; its extinction represents full-scale ecosystem failure. The farmers in question represent the largest agribusiness firms in the country who face not bankruptcy, but simply a limit on the amount of water they can rely upon from the Delta. The battle in the Delta is not one of fish v. farmers, but collapse v. reliability.

“We have a system where we try to deliver more water than can be reliably delivered. All the signals tell us that we have been exceeding the capacities of the system,” said Tina Swanson, executive director and chief scientist at the Bay Institute. “It is incontrovertible that we have to expect to export less water from the Delta than we have in the past; it is unsustainable. We’re going to have to learn to make do with less.”

Making do with less is blasphemy in San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. Every major water development in the region has been predicated on the idea of staring collapse in the face and demanding more: the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, the Kern Water Bank, and the current drive to spend another $11 billion in bond funds to build more dams and canals and gun the motor of an engine already on the cusp of failure.

Yet making do with less is an unrelenting reality for the people who work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables and tending to the almond and pistachio trees of these same agribusinesses.

“There is this sense that farmworkers prosper only when the farmers do, but that’s not true at all. The farmworkers don’t prosper even when the farmers do,” said Caroline Farrell, acting executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano. Farrell said that the fish versus farmers spin “is just one more way of exploiting farmworkers. There’s no talk of paying farmworkers just wages.”

Indeed, the California Farm Bureau supports the water bond measure to build more dams. It also lobbied successfully against Senator Florez’s bill to overhaul farm labor overtime rules.

Roberto Guerra

“We have a system where we try to deliver more water than can be reliably delivered,”
says Tina Swanson of the Bay Institute. “All the signals tell us that we have been
exceeding the capacities.”

In 2003, I interviewed Paramount Farming’s resource planning manager, Scott Hamilton. At the time I was researching the Kern Water Bank and its potential use for water marketing. Hamilton said that water sales were not Paramount’s main interest. “We’re in a situation of growing almonds and pistachios without a firm water supply, so we went into the Kern Water Bank to secure a water supply,” he said.

True enough. When I asked Aurelio if, during his 13 years working as an irrigator at Paramount a tree had ever died from lack of water, his answer came without a hint of uncertainty: “No.”

The farmworkers in the region are not so lucky.

“If you are poor and a farmworker, then you don’t have clean water,” said Susana De Anda, co-director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, an organization dedicated to advocating for potable water in the valley. “You pay water rates between $50 and $100 a month for water that you can’t drink, and then you have to spend more on bottled water.”

Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley have effectively had their water privatized. Their communities have been left out of the major water projects. The groundwater basins have been depleted and contaminated by pesticides and nitrates from the very agribusinesses that employ them. Little to no state funding makes it to their local water systems, leaving them to buy bottled water at the store or from a vending machine. Meanwhile, the Resnicks, in what would seem a scripted irony, own Fiji Water, “the #1 premier bottled water in the US.”

The lack of access to clean and safe drinking water in farmworker communities speaks to decades of exclusion from federal and state water development. The exclusion is not only a question of bitter histories, but also current policy. The $11.2 billion dollar water bond that Governor Schwarzenegger shifted from the 2010 to the 2012 ballot targets less than one percent of its funds for disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin and other regions, according to an analysis of the bond by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

“The bond does not take the issue of potable water into consideration,” De Anda said. “It is a project for the growers. Potable water should be first, and priority should be given to the people who do not have access.”

While the residents of Lost Hills are forced to buy expensive bottled water or suffer the consequences of drinking contaminated water, the Resnicks, with their control over the Kern Water Bank, have stored enough water to fill San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir – twice. Court records show that in early 2007, the Resnicks had 755,868 acre feet in the Kern Water Bank, enough to keep their trees blooming during both a statewide drought and a global recession.

Standing by the Glacier vending machine in Lost Hills one day, I met a 19-year-old woman from Michoacán who migrated to Chicago at age nine with her family before relocating to Lost Hills in 2008. She works a night shift, from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., picking bell peppers for $8 an hour. If she works hard, she said, in a month she can save $300. Asked if she drinks the tap water in her home she said no, that “it tastes nasty and they tell us not to drink it.” So every three days she fills up her jug. On a blazing July day, she pushed her full, 5-gallon jug of drinking water from the vending machine back to her house in a baby carriage. About two hundred yards down the road, the California Aqueduct was full and flowing fast.

John Gibler is the author of Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt (City Lights, 2009) and To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War (City Lights, forthcoming in 2011).

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Monday, November 29, 2010

With Cheek By Jowl- Real Climate Change Negotiations Or Kabuki Dance?

The explosive release of US Embassy cables on Wiki leaks, seemed to have created a unique distraction from the Cancun COP 16 talks. Granted the Pacific states may have featured in those documents, but the episode also presents an interesting scenario, with respect to the Cancun talks and the US diplomatic cadre's ability,and capability, to influence the policies of other nations.

The Climate talks in Cancun, Mexico and its financing mechanisms, are the top of the agenda for Pacific Small Island States coalition, according to their blog post, highlighting Fiji's negotiating team. This position also comes in the wake of Australia's position to bring forward the agreement on carbon pricing according to Reuters article.

It appears that the Australians are already considering the platitudes of carbon offsets and trading, that would follow and the expected riches as well, while the Small Pacific Island States have other priorities in mind, setting the stage for another round of waltzing.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trans-Tasman Reflexivity In South Pacific Geopolitics

Lowy Interpreter blog posting quotes from Jon Frankel.

One outstanding rebuttal to Frankel's obdurate and insulated view of South Pacific geopolitics, comes from the Kiwi Politico's latest post titled "Small Feels Large, But Only To The Small".

The excerpt of Kiwi Politico posting:

Small feels Large, but only to the Small.

datePosted on 14:37, November 14th, 2010 by Pablo

From the rhetoric and doe-eyed looks emanating from the PM and Foreign Minister during the signing of the so-called “Wellington Declaration,” one would have thought that NZ had just been awarded most favoured nation status by the US and assumed a place akin to that of France or Germany in US foreign policy. This belief seems to have gone to the head of the PM, who has taken to lecturing larger states such as Japan on NZ expectations when it comes to trading agreements.

The truth is a bit different.

The “strategic partnership” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms what has been apparent to the international security community since 2001: NZ quietly dropped its concerns about engaging in military-to-military relations with the US in exchange for the US routinely granting executive permission for these to occur.

NZ military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter reportedly involving more than just the one year rotation of combat engineers in Basra, something that the NZ government refuses to acknowledge), as well as NZ commitment of intelligence assets to both tactical and strategic intelligence gathering at home and abroad (such as the deployment of GCSB and SIS personnel to Afghanistan) all occurred without fanfare and in spite of the formal ban of military exchanges and exercises in effect since the dissolution of the ANZUS alliance.

Not having US Navy surface ship port visits in NZ does not deter US submarines from entering NZ territorial waters with or without NZ government connivance, and any look at video of NZDF troops in action in foreign locales clearly shows that they work in close proximity to US troops and preferentially use US equipment during the conduct of their combat operations.

The Wellington Declaration just makes public this discreet relationship, which even as it deepens and becomes standardised over the long-term will not require signing of a formal alliance treaty. The latter is seen as an encumbrance for domestic political reasons on both sides (since both the US Congress and NZ Parliament would see opposition to the signing of a bilateral security treaty), so much as in the way the US conducts its foreign wars (which is to not seek Congressional ratification of a declaration of war for fear of opposition, but instead to use Executive authority as commander-in-chief to declare a state of national security emergency requiring military combat deployments abroad that presents Congress with a fait accompli), the Wellington Declaration circumvents legislative scrutiny at the same time that it reaffirms the obvious close security ties that exist between the two states.

What changed most clearly is that while Labour prefers to soft peddle the relationship due to its internal factional dynamics, National has always had issues with the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that has characterised NZ diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. Although it cannot reverse the anti-nuclear policy due to domestic political factors, National has always worked to reaffirm its “traditional” security ties, to the point that it supported NZ joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded and occupied Iraq without UN authorisation. With the Wellington Declaration it has gotten its wish.

But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

What Mr. Key and his company of advisors appear to not understand is that the US rapprochement with NZ is due to two basic strategic factors, one general and one specific, that have little to do with interest in NZ per se. The first general reason is that, after a delay in responding due to the obsession with counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US has moved to counter Chinese advances in the Western Pacific basin, which it sees as the next big strategic conflict zone. Not only is it in the process of moving the bulk of its military assets into the Pacific, in a reversal of the century-old Atlantic and Euro-centric orientation that characterised its strategic outlook until recently. It has also reaffirmed its bilateral security ties to all of its Asian partners as well as India. This includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and even Viet Nam.

This defensive arc covers countries deeply concerned about Chinese neo-imperialist ambitions, many of whom have diplomatic or territorial disputes with the Chinese, and along with its soft power projection in the Pacific Island Forum countries (including Fiji, where the US has just announced the resumption of US AID development work), the US is moving to counter Chinese influence in SE Asia and beyond (most often gained via so-called “chequebook diplomacy” whereby China promotes infrastructure development projects with no apparent strings attached but which all have potentially dual civilian and military applications). The Wellington Declaration just adds NZ to the roster of US security partners that constitute a collective hedge against the looming Chinese presence, which is particularly noteworthy because of NZ’s increased dependency on Chinese investment and trade for its economic fortunes.

With the Wellington Declaration Chinese influence and ambitions in NZ are potentially fence-ringed. That may have been National’s undeclared intent, and if so that is the hypothetical NZ gain from the deal. But all of that remains to be seen (if nothing else because it would contravene National’s public assurances that it welcomes the Chinese investment and cultural presence on NZ shores–cue revelations about Pansy Wong and her long obviously dodgy failed businessman-husband, who just might have caught US negative interest given the Chinese penchant for placing intelligent assets in their diaspora).

The second, specific strategic purpose that the Wellington Declaration serves is US nuclear counter-proliferation efforts. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has a basic, and apparently sincere interest in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond those that currently possess them. Having a small “neutral” non-nuclear state as a partner in such efforts provides a convenient and effective cover (some might say fig leaf), particularly with regards to “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran.

NZ has already participated in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear programme, helping to gain a delay in Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve full weapons capability. In Iran’s case, NZ’s strong economic ties to the mullah’s regime is seen as providing a source of indirect diplomatic access and backdoor entry into the Iranian mindset with regards to nukes (via diplomatic and intelligence service information sharing). In other words, working with and through NZ on matters of nuclear proliferation, the US gains diplomatic cover for its own self-interested reasons to oppose the spread of the universally recognised deterrent.

What NZ does not get out of this strategic partnership, and which the National government continues to wax deluded about, is improved negotiating status with the US with regard to bilateral trade. The US is content to allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to take their course with respect to trade with NZ and other small Pacific partners, and domestic political considerations accentuated by the recent midterm elections make it nigh impossible for NZ’s leading export sector, dairy, to make inroads into the subsidised US market. Truth be told, for the US there is no “issue-linkage” between security and trade when it comes to NZ even if its rhetoric continues to hold out the promise of such being the case sometime in the future. Yet the current (and to be fair, the past) NZ government continues to insist that, “difficulties” notwithstanding, bilateral trade with the US in forthcoming if not imminent because of NZ efforts across a range of issues of mutual interest without qualification or constraint.

This is where Mr. Key and Mr. McCully fail the foreign policy leadership test. Given the US strategic interests at play, and its absolute need to secure partnership agreements that catered to these interests given the evolving world balance of power, NZ was in a position to bargain hard and leverage its credentials (mostly Labour-made) as an honest broker and reliable international interlocutor into some form of tangible, immediate benefit in exchange for accepting the role of US strategic partner. That did not happen. Instead, what NZ got was platitudes, promises and bilateral yearly meetings between foreign policy counterparts, something that is par for the course for any number of nations, in what essentially amounted to a stop-over on Secretary Clinton’s trip to more important meetings with the US proxy that is Australia. As a result of that brief rendezvous, NZ is now saddled with the burden of being internationally perceived to be (if not in fact) more closely tied to the US without the full benefits of being so. It is a junior partner of the US in security only, and that is bound to be noticed by the international community.

In effect, NZ is just a small cog in a larger US strategic plan that is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with NZ interests and all to do with how the US sees and proposes to shape the strategic environment currently evolving in the Western Pacific and with regard to nuclear proliferation. National believes that it has made NZ a “player” by signing a strategic partnership agreement with the US, but the truth is that it has committed the country to a relationship that has always been one sided and which just got more so. To put it bluntly: the Tories may feel big as a result of the “Wellington Declaration” but they still are small and myopic when it comes to perceiving, much less comprehending the bigger picture, to say nothing of the realities at stake down the road.

PS: The farce only gets better. NZ announced that it is in FTA negotiations with authoritarian, crime mob-dominated klepto-oligarchic Russia even though it admits that Foreign Affairs and Trade have very limited Russian language comprehension skills and the deal will involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Russia negotiating for them, presumably), two states that NZ has admitted to having”limited” knowledge about (to include comprehension of Tajik or Uzbek dialects). In other words, National has staked its claim to being at the forefront of free trade agreements without understanding the business and political culture, much less language or human rights conditions, of potential partners just after it committed to a long-term security partnership with a country that has a troublesome relationship with all three. This is amateurism taken to art-level heights.

Pablo (

Raised in Latin America by expat American parents and attracted to anti-authoritarian politics beginning in his early teens, he combined a career in academia with episodic forays into the US security and defence apparatus before emigrating to New Zealand in 1997. Now engaged in political risk consulting with an emphasis on Australaisan-global relations and a focus on ethical exchange, in New Zealand he developed an interest in small state analysis and is writing a book on the security politics of peripheral democracies (Chile, New Zealand and Portugal). His policy interests are in comparative labour politics, labour market dynamics, comparative regime change, comparative democracy, strategic thought, intelligence analysis, threat (net) assessment and unconventional warfare.

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