Wellington, January 9,2024
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has backed the right of Palestinians to “return to their homes [in Gaza] once conditions allow.”
Blinken’s comment came on January 7 during his latest Middle East tour aimed at calming nerves in the wake of ongoing Israel-Hamas hostilities.
Barely 48 hours earlier, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters held a wide-ranging discussion over phone with Blinken, which also included a reiteration of the call to end attacks on ships in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen.
The dates are significant. They show how priorities can shift abruptly in the span of 48 hours as a conflict situation unfolds.
But for New Zealand, it was a coming-of-age moment of sorts, albeit short-lived given the fleeting attention span of the US Secretary of State in the midst of touring a conflict zone.
For New Zealand, trade was starting to corner importance over civilian casualty rates in the Middle East.
Minister of Defence Judith Collins articulated New Zealand’s concern over the disruption of supply lines caused by Houthi attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea, since November.
New Zealand joined eleven other countries in issuing a final warning to the Houthis that “they would face consequences if they did not cease hostilities,” Collins said on January 5.
The minister stressed that New Zealand had “contributed to maritime security in the Middle East since the 1990s.”
She referenced the “12 personnel in the Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain – a multinational naval partnership that contributes to security and stability.”
The Combined Maritime Forces, based in Bahrain, is the largest multinational naval partnership in the world. Its 39 member-states are committed to upholding “international rules-based order at sea” and are engaged in counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and regional cooperation. Its members include New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, as well as India and Pakistan, among others.
The Red Sea is a key waterway connecting Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal. An estimated 12 to 15% of global trade moves along this route.
Houthi attacks have diverted ships around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, delaying delivery of cargo by up to two weeks and pushing up costs.
Consumers end up bearing the brunt of rising prices as shipping companies scramble to meet overhead costs. A range of products will sport higher price tags on shop shelves as the disruption in the supply chain starts to bite in coming weeks.
Apart from oil and gas, products from Scottish Whisky to textiles from India, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh go via the Suez Canal, according to trade experts.
The Houthi attacks have turned the Red Sea into a theatre of operations and a potential flashpoint in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, given the presence of an Iranian warship there as well as US and Israeli naval vessels.
Iran is also capable of disrupting the flow of shipping traffic to Europe via the Strait of Hormuz, which it controls from its own coast.
The asymmetric ground battle being fought by Hamas against the Israel Defence Force (IDF) in Gaza appears to be mimicked by the Houthis in the Red Sea.
Western navies are having to deploy costly armaments from flotillas of warships to target the cheap drones and missiles fired from land by the Houthis, experts point out.
Opinion is divided, however, on whether New Zealand should be drawn into the Middle East conflict and moving in lock-step with the US and other Western allies. While foreign policy hawks support the partnership with the US, others disagree.
Former diplomat Carl Worker is quoted as saying, on Twitter, that “the Houthi actions in the Red Sea are widely seen as a new theatre of operations linked to and rising from the conflict between Israel/US and Hamas/Iran in Gaza.
“As a result, by associating itself so directly and publicly with the US threat against the actions of the Houthis aimed at pressuring Israel, New Zealand is liable to be seen by many in the global community as aligning with the Israel/US position on Gaza, to the extent of declaring willingness to involve itself militarily in Yemen, if required.”
Committing New Zealand to a pact with Western allies that could involve a call to arms induces caution in former Prime Minister Helen Clark as well. She calls the stand endorsed by New Zealand “a slippery slope,” and urges a political solution to the Palestinian question.
But security analyst Paul Buchanan is more scathing. In his view, critics are justified if they claim New Zealand “has placed more value on [shipping] containers than the lives of Gazan children.”
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington