Top Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officers spent the weekend working on calming down the public face of the New Zealand China relationship.
Led by the Ministry’s Deputy Secretary, Americas and Asia Group, Ben King, their work culminated in two remarkably similar statements from the Prime Minister and the Chinese Ambassador, extolling the state of the relationship.
And there were unconfirmed reports last night that Trade Minister David Parker was planning to go to China for the second Belt and Road Forum, in April.
Meanwhile, reports from Britain suggest there may be a way for New Zealand to reverse its ban on Huawei and have the Chinese company work with Spark on its 5G network.
But the big development yesterday was the two statements, from the Prime Minister and the Ambassador,
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, began her weekly press conference yesterday by reading a carefully worded statement on the relationship.
“China is a very important and highly valued partner for New Zealand,” she said.
“I know from my discussion with Premier Li in November that China also values its relationship with New Zealand.”
The Ambassador, Madam Wu Xi, speaking at an NZ China Council function in Wellington, made a very similar statement but included a frank acknowledgement of the issues that were raised last week.
“When navigating our bilateral relations in these trying times, we should always have a vision of the journey ahead and have a clear sense of direction,” she said.
“We need to always bear in mind that the defining feature of our relationship is mutual benefit and win-win outcome, our friendship and cooperation has great potential and vitality.
“China’s development will provide even more opportunities for New Zealand and create broader space for our bilateral cooperation.
“We need to foster new prospects for our shared interests and work for substantive progress in our cooperations, in order to deliver more benefits to the people of our two countries.
“Over the past few weeks, there has been public debate on the direction of China-New Zealand relations.
“Many of our New Zealand friends shared both their concerns and constructive suggestions about this relationship.
“When sailing through uncharted waters, it is vitally important to firmly hold the rudder, carefully steering through the rocks. “
And she reminded her audience of the formal agreement that defines New Zealand-China relations.
“As many of you have witnessed in the past decades, enormous strides have been made in China New Zealand relations,” she said.
“We have seen continued strengthening of trade, investment and people-to-people links.
“We have enjoyed an impressive and proud list of ‘firsts’ in China’s relations with developed countries.
“All of these demonstrate the underlying significance and the far-reaching implications of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and New Zealand.”
The Ambassador’s reference to the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” was clearly a reminder to New Zealand of the agreement struck between President Xi Jin Ping and then-Prime Minister, John Key, in 2014.
The 15 paragraph agreement listed areas where the two countries would co-operate and included areas like trade, agriculture and science but also defence and foreign policy.
That agreement has been tested since Labour came into power and Winston Peters became Foreign Minister.
There was a strong wording on China’s expansionary military role in the East Asian region in last year’s Defence Policy Statement; comments by Peters questioning the value of the Belt and Road Initiative; the Pacific reset clearly designed to limit China’s role in the Pacific and then the decision by the GCSB Director, Andrew Hampton, last November to stop Huawei from supplying equipment to Spark’s 5G upgrade.
Ardern, though, yesterday was sticking to the script.
“We do place a very high priority on our relationship with China it’s a significant and complex relationship but one that brings great benefit to both parties,” she said.
Perhaps an indication of that might be a suggestion from sources who watch the China relationship that Trade Minister David Parker would attend China’s second Belt and Road Forum to be held in Beijing in April.
However, his office could not confirm this last night.
Though National embraced the Belt and Road initiative, the Labour-led Government has been less enthusiastic with Winston Peters clearly sceptical about its value.
Attendance by a senior Minister such as Parker who is also close to the Prime Minister would be another statement intended to be regarded positively in Beijing.
In Beijing, on Friday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson, Geng Shuang, denied suggestions that China was warning tourists not to come to New Zealand.
“Those insisting such an interpretation are evidently either making a big fuss over nothing or harbouring ulterior motives,” he said.
And he too was echoing the words of the Prime Minister and the Ambassador: “On bilateral relations, a China-New Zealand relationship enjoying sound and steady development is in the interest of both countries and peoples. China stands ready to work with New Zealand on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit for new progress in bilateral relations.”
And to add to the optimism that the relationship might improve, there was a new possibility raised yesterday that Huawei may yet get GCSB approval to supply Spark’s 5G network.
The British, who have already been a source of advice for the New Zealand security agency, are now reported to be considering allowing Huawei to supply their 5G network because they have found a way to mitigate their concerns about the company’s products.
Foreign Minister Winston Peters has been clear that New Zealand has not closed the door on Huawei; the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act provides for any company that has had its equipment turned down can come back with more information; in effect to appeal its case.
The Prime Minister appeared to confirm this on “Q+A” last night.
“They’ve (the GCSB) gone back to Spark and said look we want to see some mitigation. The ball’s now in your court to do that. And that’s where we currently stand. “
If there is new information in Britain, then that could presumably be supplied to the GCSB with the possibility that Huawei could get approval here.
That would, however, be certain to infuriate the Australians and Americans — but operating an independent foreign policy was never going to be easy.