On November 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a three hundred word “readout” on a phone call between the Prime Minister and President Xi of China in advance of the APEC summit that day.
The statement was a bland reaffirmation of mutual interests with an oblique reference to human rights issues.
“Prime Minister Ardern underlined that New Zealand has an independent and values-based foreign policy,” the statement said.
“The two countries’ distinct history and systems meant that they would have differing viewpoints on issues, but New Zealand would address these in a consistent and predictable way.
“The Prime Minister took the opportunity to reiterate New Zealand’s concerns over developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”
What the statement did not say was that the phone call was an hour-long.
China’s Charge d’Affairs in Wellington, Wang Genhua, confirmed this in a Zoom call with POLITIK yesterday.
By any standard, that is a significant event for the New Zealand Prime Minister and for the President of China; it was an unusually lengthy amount of time for him to spend talking to the leader of a country of five million people 10,000 kilometres away from Beijing.
That was as long as he spent in his bilateral meeting with Ardern in Beijing in 2019.
It is a measure of the delicacy of the relationship with China that so little was said about it by Jacinda Ardern.
However, it appears to have been an amicable call which touched on any number of currently controversial issues.
Wang said Ardern expressed New Zealand support for the Winter Olympics in China and confirmed that New Zealand sportspeople would participate.
“We welcome that,” he said.
In a statement last night, a spokesperson for Ardern said: “On the Prime Minister’s recent call with President Xi, she noted New Zealand does not have an established practice of Ministerial attendance at Winter Games and wished China a successful hosting.
“New Zealand made the decision that we wouldn’t be attending at a ministerial-level some time ago.
“On the same call, the Prime Minister reiterated New Zealand’s concerns over developments with the Uighur people in Xinjiang and the situation in Hong Kong.”
New Zealand is the only Five Eyes member to sign the Olympic Truce, which is not being signed by a number of western countries, including Australia, as a protest against human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the treatment of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. And though the Prime Minister’s statement last night says no Minister will attend, the statement is careful to say this is a decision made “some time ago” which distances it from the the US diplomatic boycott of the games.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the boycott on Monday, saying that the administration would not contribute to the “fanfare” of the Olympics.
New Zealand’s position is consistent with its long-standing independent foreign policy as it tries to walk a line between the United States (and Australia and Japan) and China.
Wang told POLITIK that during their phone call, both Xi and Ardern reconfirmed their commitments to the stability of the bilateral relationship.
“Both of them are committed to that strongly,” he said.
Even the presence of a New Zealand naval vessel in exercises with the British and other navies in the South China Sea seems not to have affected the relationship.
He contrasted New Zealand’s policy with that of Australia, which has been highly critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea.
“I appreciate the independent policy of New Zealand,” he said.
Nevertheless, New Zealand has expressed concerns about growing strategic competition between the United States and China in the Pacific.
Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, speaking last month in Jakarta, said the Indo-Pacific had become increasingly contested and the strategic environment more challenging.
“We have seen rising nationalism, the undermining of democratic norms, and deepening inequalities,” she said.
“Global competition is intensifying, at a time when the need for coordinated action has never been greater.”
However, figures compiled by the Lowy Institute in September show that China’s aid to the South Pacific is falling.
The Institute’s Pacific Islands Program director, Jonathan Pryke, said the figures went against the dominant narrative about China’s growing influence in the region.
So what is China’s long term strategic goal in the Pacific?
“The BBC and CNN always depict China as a challenger of regional security,” said Wang.
“Actually, we don’t have geopolitical ambitions in the South Pacific.
“We even cannot handle the South China Sea. You know, the East China Sea; we cannot even handle that.
“How can we go so far away to the South Pacific?
“We have no such ambition at all.
“In the region, we have eight or nine or nine countries that have a diplomatic relationship with China and the other five or four with Taiwan.
“That’s our top priority to have more friends in the region.
“First, We have to keep friendship with all of the nine countries, and we should not let Taiwan get one of them to their side.
“That’s our top priority.:”
Overall, Wang said he was optimistic about bilateral relations between New Zealand China, in part because of the trading relationship between the two countries.
He referred to the recent Sixth Plenary Sessions of the Chinese Communist Party, which placed an emphasis on economic development and ensuring “Communism with Chinese Characteristics” delivered more equality to China.
“If our domestic market keeps stable, then that means there will be more opportunities for New Zealand to trade with China,” he said.
China has applied for membership of two trade agreements which New Zealand is a member of; the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement. (DEPA)
Both applications raise issues about the way “Communism with Chinese Characteristics” leads to state control of many markets in China.
There are questions about the independence of the country’s huge and powerful state-owned enterprises, which range from steel companies to digital data companies.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed scepticism about China’s qualification to join the CPTPP at his first press conference after his election in October.
“We need to look at whether China can meet the high standards required by the trade pact. It’s still unclear if it can,” he said.
But Wang said China was already making the changes needed.
“China has sorted out the reform measures and legislative amendments that may be needed and the high level of market access commitments to make,” he said.
“These are being duly prepared for joining the CPTPP.”
But if China;’s challenges with the CPTPP are commercial, its challenges with joining DEPA are more political.
American digital platforms like YouTube and Facebook are banned in China. And Wang offered little hope that may be changed.
“Facebook or YouTube, actually cannot enter officially in China,” he said.
“That is based on our political decision because we think we are still on the weak side of the international discourse power because the international media is still dominated by, you know, CNN, BBC, AP or Reuters.
“We don’t have such strong international media power.
“So we have to have some prohibitions on these, on these, you know, Facebook, YouTube.
“But they are the dominant power of the new generation, and we think it is better that we prohibit them.
“When our media power has grown, then maybe we would consider having some cooperation with them.
“But I cannot say where we are going to be open to them.”
If there is one issue that divides China from the west, it is human rights, and that is crystallised by China not being invited to the United States Summit for Democracy which starts on Thursday.
New Zealand has been invited, but partly because of time differences, no final decision has been made on whether the Prime Minister herself will participate.
Wang said every country had its own human rights issues.
But focussing on human rights in China meant missing the big picture of the country’s development and how it has lifted over a billion people out of poverty, he said.
So China is opposed to the US summit.
“We think this summit meeting is trying o divide the world again into democratic and undemocratic systems,” he said.
“We think it’s inappropriate.
“The standard of democracy should not be defined by only one country.
“We think, you know, there are many forms of democracy and that the electoral democracy is only one form for the USA or western culture.
“We are now enjoying the whole process of people’s democracy in China.
“We think the party made great achievements for the people.
“They enjoy more well-being; social well-being, medical well-being, and they enjoy a mature life or spiritual life.
“And they made progress; they enjoy a better environment, a better education, and they can travel through the world.
“Democracy means for the people, by the people and among the people.”
Clearly, the differences between New Zealand China in many areas are vast, yet, partly as a consequence of the economic relationship, the political relationship remains solid.