Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong appeared to have restored some sense of order to our relationship with China yesterday when they spoke to the China Business Summit in Auckland.

Only a month ago, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington was describing comments Jacinda Ardern made at NATO critical of China as “wrong and thus regrettable” and “not helpful for building trust.”

And former Prime Minister Helen Clark told the summit Ardern had subscribed to language about China in a White House Communique that wasn’t language that New Zealand had subscribed to before,

But Wang yesterday described New Zealand’s relationship with China in flattering terms.

“China New Zealand cooperation has created many firsts, leading the relations between China and Western developed countries,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one enthusiastic about what appeared to be a backing off of the White House statement.

National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee said it was good to hear Helen Clark express the views she did.

Some commentators will simply see the Ambassador’s statement as an endorsement of the view that New Zealand is “soft” on China.

Perhaps to counter that, Ardern had agreed in the Communique after her May 31 meeting with US President Joe Biden to single China out as “a state that does not share our values or security interests” and whose establishment “of a persistent military presence in the Pacific”  would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both countries.

Then four weeks later, in Madrid, at the NATO summit, she said that China “has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.”

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That was the comment that drew the Embassy’s response.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, in a subtle reminder that New Zealand’s foreign policy had been built on the balance between China and the US, told POLITIK at the time she thought great care had to be taken with the use of language and with managing perceptions with respect to New Zealand’s relationship with both China and the United States.

POLITIK PM Jacinda Ardern at the CHina Business Summit

After the NATO meeting and Clark’s comments, Ardern made two speeches, one in London and a second in Sydney, attempting to define New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.

In London at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, echoing her Washington and Madrid positions, she said China had become increasingly assertive in our region.

But then she added a surprising qualification.

“Let me be clear, the relationships between China and others in the Pacific region are not new,” she said.

“China has been a partner in aid and development projects in our region for many years – and it would be wrong for us to call out their mere presence when we welcome engagement on the Pacific regions terms from others.”

In her second speech at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, she said that France, Japan, the UK, the US, and China had all played a role in the Pacific for many, many years.

“It would be wrong to characterise this engagement, including that of China, as new,” she said.

“It would also be wrong to position the Pacific in such a way that they have to ‘pick sides.”

Yesterday, Ardern set out to further redefine the relationship with China.

She began by asserting New Zealand’s support for the international rules-based system and said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that when large countries disregarded sovereignty and territorial integrity with a sense of impunity, it did not bode well for small countries like New Zealand. 

“And that’s why as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and in line with its commitment to the UN Charter, we continue to urge China to be clear that it does not support the Russian invasion and have called on China to use its access and influence to help bring an end to the conflict,” she said.

She said that China’s role in the world had grown and returned to her claim from the NATO speech that China was becoming more assertive but this time with an important qualification.

“But even as China becomes more assertive in the pursuit of its interests, there are still shared interests on which we can and should cooperate,”

And then, in what proved to be an important definition of New Zealand’s relationship with China, she said there were areas that mattered deeply to New Zealand and where China and New Zealand’s interests or world view differed.

“In all of these areas, we are willing to engage – consistently, predictably, and respectfully,” she said.

“But we will also advocate for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand’s interests and values and speak out on issues that do not.

“New Zealanders – and an independent foreign policy – demand nothing less. “

She said New Zealand had consistently expressed its concerns about economic coercion, human rights, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.

“Managing the differences in our relationship is not always going to be easy, and there are no guarantees,” she said.

“But as a Government, we continue to work hard – through dialogue and diplomacy.

“We will never take our relationship for granted, but nor do we assume that it will not evolve.”

It was a level of frankness that was responded to, in kind, by the Chinese Ambassador, albeit that he offered a subtle warning about the need for consistency in the relationship.

“For China, developing a friendly relationship of cooperation with New Zealand is a long-term strategic decision, rather than a short-term choice of convenience,” he said.

“We shall not waver in our  commitment to the relationship no matter how the international situation evolves.”

And he too promised to address differences in the relationship frankly.

“We have no intention of shying away from our differences or divergences with the New Zealand side,” he said.

“It is our firm belief, however, that what we have in common far outweighs our differences.

“So long as we adhere to the principles of mutual respect, seeking common ground while reserving differences, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, the two countries can, through constructive dialogues, properly manage, gradually reduce, and eventually transcend the differences between us.”

POLITIK Former PM Helen Clark speaking at the China Business Summit

Helen Clark welcomed the common ground that was reached by Ardern and the Ambassador.

“I did have concerns about the language from the communique after the White House meeting because I felt that it wasn’t language that New Zealand had subscribed to before,” she told the Summit.

“I think what was important for New Zealand was that it was seen as always speaking its own mind and not carrying messages for others.

“And that’s important, independent positioning.”

She said the Prime Minister’s latest speeches had “put the record straight”.

“But it is a balancing act and I think we come back to a consistent, calibrated messaging not only about the China relationship but about all our relationships.”

POLITIK National Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee with China Business Summit co-chair, Michael Barnett

And perhaps surprisingly, National’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, also endorsed Clark’s comments.

“We do have to maintain that independent foreign policy,” he said.

“I think it was good to hear Helen Clark stressing very strongly that particular view,” he said.

“I think it’s too easy to get caught up in the sort of excitement of a geopolitical moment where you actually lose the value of a long-term relationship.”

And the potential value of that relationship was spelled out by the Ambassador.

The speeches yesterday indicated that New Zealand might be ready to accept that.

“China’s middle-income community is expected to double to 800 million, which will further unlock its huge consumption potential, with implications for not only the endogenous factors for the growth of the Chinese economy but also for stakeholders in the Chinese market, including many NZ businesses,” he said.

Eight hundred middle-income earners in China would be the equivalent of the entire EU and the United States.

China is clearly the rising economic power in East Asia; inevitably, it will also seek to become the dominant political power supplanting the US. 

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