The Chinese side at the talks; (l) Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin; Chinese Ambassador to NZ, Wang Xialong; Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.

There is only one phrase to describe New Zealand’s relationship with China and the Foreign Minister: “strategic ambiguity”.

On the one hand, both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been publicly claiming that the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister was “a pleasure” and a success and yesterday were saying that both, along with Trade Minister Todd McClay, had been invited to China this year.

But privately, Peters told Wang Yi that New Zealand believed there was a security threat to our region, heavily hinting that was China.

The Prime Minister did not disagree.

It seems the days when New Zealand fitted neatly into a description by “The Economist” magazine that it had the closest relationship of any western nation with China are over.

The new government’s hints that it might join AUKUS, its willingness to sign on to Western statements implying criticism of China, and its increasing frequency of contact with United States officials all point to a swing back to the days of ANZUS.

Nevertheless, the official readout on the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi from both China and New Zealand on Monday portrayed a relationship that couldn’t be better.

That has been capped off with the news that Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is scheduled to go to Beijing later in the year.

However, that cheery view wasn’t quite how the Chinese media saw it.

The Communist Party foreign newspaper, “The Global Times”, quoted Chen Hong, executive director of the Asia Pacific Studies Centre at East China Normal University, who urged Wellington “to refrain from joining Washington in provoking key issues related to China especially on the Taiwan question as the resolution of the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese.’

Advertisment

While the continuous, stable development of China-New Zealand ties is anticipated, Chen warned that the US and some of its allies would try to further instigate tensions and woo New Zealand to follow its anti-China strategy, the paper said.

POLITIK Foreign Minister Winston Peters escorts his Chinese counterpart into the Grand Hall for the New Zealand-China talks

China’s concern that New Zealand was drifting back to its old allies is not new and originated in the second term of the Ardern government.

China’s Ambassador here, Wang Xialong, in a carefully worded segment of his speech at last July’s China Business Summit, hinted at that concern.

“While staying in the bubbles of a bygone era might give people a false sense of comfort or security, it will not solve their problems, nor will it enable them to grasp the opportunities of the present, let alone to embrace the future,” he said.

The Ambassador has insisted that the relationship between China and New Zealand must be based on trust, a point President Xi Jinping also made to Jacinda Ardern in 2019.

The Ambassador sees suggestions that New Zealand might become involved in AUKUS as a threat to that trust.

He told OneNews, “I think this is about the mutual trust between countries like New Zealand and China.”

“And I’ve made it clear on a couple of occasions that the essence of our bilateral relationship between New Zealand and China is mutually beneficial cooperation, and its basis is mutual respect and mutual trust, and its future depends on joint efforts on both sides.

“On our part, we look forward to working together with New Zealand to take our relationship to the next level, to the benefit of both sides on the basis of mutual respect and mutual trust.”

And that optimism was echoed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his public statements on Monday.

“No matter how the international landscape evolves, China-New Zealand relations have enjoyed sound and steady growth, setting a fine example of win-win cooperation between countries of different social systems,” Wang said in a translation of his opening remarks in the bilateral talks with Foreign Minister Winston Peters and the New Zealand delegation on Monday.

“Mutual respect, accommodating differences, focusing on cooperation, and advancing benefits of the two peoples are all good experiences worth summarising from the sound and smooth development of our bilateral relationship, and also worth being carried forward going down the road.”

Wang said there were two main purposes to his visit.

“The first is to work with the New Zealand government to carry on the spirit of “striving to be the first,” promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries,” he said.

“The second is to enhance communication with the New Zealand side on international and regional issues of mutual interest in this changing and turbulent international environment so as to contribute to the peace and stability of the region and the whole world. I believe that with our dialogue today the two sides will reach new consensus and inject new impetus to the further development of our bilateral relationship in the next ten years.”

He was even more effusive when he held a meeting that went over time with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon.

He said (in translation) that the New Zealand – China relationship had always been the pacesetter in China’s relations with developed countries. 

“This bilateral relationship is a precious asset that should be very much cherished by two sides and should also be further carried forward,” the translation said.

“And I trust that within your time, the comprehensive strategic partnership between our two countries will be taken to the next level.”

Peters, at a media briefing yesterday, revealed that Luxon was likely to go to Beijing later this year to meet President Xi Jinping. This is unusual in itself, as the Chinese usually carefully share out high-level visits to accommodate everyone who wants to meet the President, and the New Zealand Prime Minister was there as recently as last June.

But all of this was happening in public on the surface.

Peters conceded that in private, the talks had been “frank.”

“He did raise AUKUS s with me, and I pointed out the right of countries to organise their defense arrangements if they had concerns about the need to have such arrangements, and that I did not expect him to think that what our views were, our concerns were, could be conceived as being imaginary,” he said.

Peters said Wang would not be unfamiliar with the background to New Zealand’s position, including the recent visit to their counterparts in Australia by himself and Defence Minister Judith Collins, where AUKUS was discussed.

“It was just a matter of, making very certain that he understood that we did not have imaginary concerns about long term security,” he said.

RNZ / Samuel Rillstone Prime Minister Christopher Luxon in talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Wellington on Monday

However, AUKUS binds its partners to the United States.

In September 2021, a senior United States administration official said in a media briefing: ”I just want to underscore that this is a fundamental decision that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”

If New Zealand were to join, it would, in effect, be a return to ANZUS.

Peters’ comments that New Zealand’s long-term security concerns were not imaginary can only have been interpreted by Wang as a concern about China.

In February, after Peters and Collin’s trip to Australia, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, was asked about “New Zealand’s desire, plan or consideration of joining AUKUS?”

“We’ve repeatedly said that the establishment of the so-called AUKUS security partnership between the US, the UK and Australia to promote cooperation on nuclear submarines and other cutting-edge military technologies reveals a typical Cold War mentality,” said Wang.

“It will only exacerbate the arms race, undermine the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and hurt regional peace and stability.”

Wang, who took part in the Wellington talks, said the AUKUS partners had totally disregarded the concerns of the international community.

“We hope that relevant countries will cherish the hard-won peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, be prudent in words and actions on relevant issues and adopt concrete actions to uphold the overall peace, stability and development in the region,” he said.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon did nothing to talk Peters’ comments back when he was asked about them yesterday.

“We had a very successful meeting with the Foreign Minister yesterday,” he said.

“Obviously, our foreign Minister spent time with them. I had a very short call with them. We have, huge areas of common interest, which is around trade and around climate and the environment.

“But obviously, we also have differences of opinion.

“And we raised those issues with China, as we would with any of our trading partners, with great predictability and consistency. 

Media: “But are we saying that China is a threat to security?”

Luxon: “We raised concerns that we may have, with any of our trading partners around a range of issues. They obviously arise particularly consistently, privately and publicly as needed.”

Defence Minister Judith Collins was slightly more explicit.

“I’m not going to answer the Foreign Minister’s statements. He will make his own statements,” she said.

POLITIK (l) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi; New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters and Chinese Amabssador to New Zealand Wang Xialong sample Garage Project beer at the Beehive.

Although these tensions must have been evident in the private talks, the participants insisted they had been conducted in a convivial spirit.

Peters went as far as to complain that Luxon and Trade Minister Todd McClay had gone over time in their meeting with  Wang, thus truncating the beer tasting and dinner he had organised for his Chinese counterpart.

Here Wang Yi demonstrated real big power by producing a bottle of the Chinese spirit, Maotai, which is generally around 40% proof.

Peters could only respond with Garage Project beer.

The problem with drinking with the Chinese Foreign Minister is that the hangover may take some time to appear and may be difficult to deal with.