New Zealand diplomats in Beijing were last month summonsed into the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 9.00 p.m. to hear China’s complaints about New Zealand’s reaction to the tribunal ruling on the South China Sea.
But Foreign Minister Murray McCully says he sees this actually as evidence of the success of the relationship given that some other countries were called in at 3.00 a.m.
And he doesn’t believe there is a linkage between that meeting and the current problems with New Zealand’s kiwifruit exports to China.
“My own view is that it is what it looks like; I think it is a biosecurity issue where they are doing what we would do.”
This then raises the question whether the kiwifruit problem is aprtly because there has been a slight chilling in the relationship because of New Zealand’s response to the South China Sea arbitration ruling.
Responding to the ruling on July 12, McCully said he hoped that the Tribunal’s ruling could provide a platform for resolving the longstanding and complex issues in the South China Sea.
But even that mild acknowledgement of the Tribunal was at odds with the Chinese position.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed China’s “staunch position of non-acceptance and non-recognition of the award” and said the ruling would not be recognised by anyone in the world who stood on the side of justice.
Even so, McCully told POLITIK that recent meetings with the Chinese have been warm.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the South China Sea issue has presented difficulties in the relationship.
“My own intention has always been to spell out our position; to be clear about the basic principle but to not be provocative about it,” he said.
“they don’t like it but they regard the way in which we are conveying our position as being inside their general comfort margins.
“One or two others have been, in their eyes, more provocative, and I think probably intentionally so.”
McCully met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Vientiane at the East Asia summit at the end of July.
“The exchanges I had were of pleasantries and bonhomie, and there was no deep engagement on the South China Sea at all.
“That is in contrast to last year where I missed the entire gala dinner because the Chinese wanted me to go to their hotel and have a fully translated hour and a half, no holds barred, discussion on the position we were going to take on the South China Seat the next day in the meetings.”
However, McCully does not believe the South China Sea issue has been forgotten about in Beijing.
But he doubts that it will take any action until it has hosted the G20 meeting in Hangzhou next month but that it may act before the US Presidential election.
“If there was to be any escalation that would be the time,” he said.
“That means that in the meantime we have to make sure there is more constructive stuff going on.”
But plainly the kiwifruit issue is a reminder the relationship with China constantly has the potential to slip off the rails.
“We should always be conscious that running a big complex trade and economic relationship with a country like China is not like running that sort of relationship with Australia where we have deep understandings of where each is coming from.
“In a relationship like the one we have with China you have to work at it everyday on multiple fronts to make sure you achieve that level of understanding.”
Participants in recent meetings in New Zealand with US Vice President Biden have told POLITIK he was keen to talk about China and New Zealand’s position on the South China Sea thus underlining the tightrope that New Zealand was trying to maintain good relations with both the US and China.
But this doesn’t worry McCully either.
“The US likes to talk to us a but about that stuff.
“I think they have difficulty getting what they regard as areally clear read on things themselves and welcome the fact that we have got quite an active relationship there and have our own views on that stuff.”
McCully also says that China and New Zealand have worked well together on the Security Council.
So from his point of view there relationship is fine but, as he says, it’s a relationship that has to work at.
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