Liu Jianchao (centre) with Chinese Ambassador Wang Xialong at Parliament yesterday

The importance of New Zealand’s relationship with China was surely demonstrated yesterday with the surprise arrival in the capital of top Chinese foreign policy official Liu Jianchao.

The trip was apparently organized a week ago but kept secret.

Liu is the Minister of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) International Liaison Department and is regarded as being close to President Xi Jinping and the likely long-term Foreign Minister when 70-year-old Wang Yi retires.

He met yesterday with Foreign Minister Winston Peters, Trade Minister Todd McClay, Speaker Gerry Brownlee and Labour MPs David Parker and Phil Twyford.

Last night, he was on his way to Christchurch for a ceremony to commemorate Rewi Alley, the New Zealander who worked with Mao Tse Tung during the Chinese Revolution and went on to become a venerated foreign “friend” of China through his work establishing training schools for apprentices.

The Chinese are well aware that New Zealand’s relationship with China is currently under debate.

Liu’s trip may also have been sounding New Zealand out before an expected visit of Chinese Premier Le Qiang in three weeks.

An official Chinese readout on the meeting with Peters said Liu Jianchao emphasized that in the current international situation, with increasing instability and uncertainty, maintaining long-term stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region was particularly valuable.

“China hopes to strengthen communication and coordination with New Zealand to jointly safeguard regional and global peace and stability and promote development and prosperity,” the readout said.

It reported Peters praising the achievements and “firsts” in bilateral cooperation.

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“He highlighted that since the signing of the free trade agreement, bilateral trade has rapidly developed, with China becoming the main market for New Zealand’s important products,” the readout said.

“New Zealand firmly adheres to the One-China policy and wishes to strengthen dialogue with China, expanding exchanges and cooperation in economic, cultural, and other fields, and making new progress in bilateral relations.”

It went on to say that: “The two sides also exchanged views on international and regional issues such as the Korean Peninsula and the Ukraine crisis.”

The readout made no mention of AUKUS.

And Peters himself was keen to emphasize that the topic had not been discussed.

Instead, he claimed the discussions had focused solely on the trading relationship.

“We’re talking about the need for us to keep our relationship going as being very dependent; both us on their market and also themselves and feeding their people. So it was very constructive.”

This is becoming a consistent line from the New Zealand government that the relationship with China is simply a trading relationship.

But Liu is about much more than trade.

After studying international relations at Oxford University in the late 1980s, Liu joined the Foreign Ministry’s translation department and went on to hold different positions at the ministry, including as its spokesman—a job he held during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—and as Chinese ambassador to the Philippines and Indonesia.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that at a panel in Britain last summer, Mr. Liu explained that China wanted to make friends all over the world. But he cautioned, “When China is under pressure, and China’s policies are under pressure, we do demonstrate a fighting spirit.”

He has acted as something of a troubleshooter for China’s foreign policy.

Earlier this year he was in the United States for meetings with the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and later this month he is headed to Japan to meet with ruling and opposition Japanese officials.

While he was in Wellington yesterday, he met with Labour Party MPs David Parker, Phil Twyford, and Damien O’Connor.

That meeting also did not discuss AUKUS.

POLITIK Liu Jianchao (left) at lunch yesterday with Foreign Minister Winston Peters

And his other meeting in the capital was with Speaker Gerry Brownlee.

The Chinese readout said Liu Jianchao said that since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and New Zealand, both sides had promoted “the continuous, healthy, and stable development of bilateral relations based on mutual respect, inclusiveness, and a focus on cooperation for the benefit of the people.”

“China is willing to strengthen communication and dialogue with New Zealand, maintain high-level exchanges, enhance exchanges and cooperation between political parties and parliaments, increase political trust, deepen cooperation in economic and trade fields, expand cultural exchanges, properly handle differences, and promote the further development of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and New Zealand,” the readout said.

“China is also willing to leverage each other’s strengths to continue trilateral cooperation and jointly assist the development of Pacific Island countries.”

(Liu’s visit to New Zealand is also expected to see him continue on to Vanuatu, a clear indication of China’s interest in the Pacific.)

The readout continued and said Liu Jianchao provided an overview of China’s economic situation and said that China was comprehensively advancing the construction of a strong nation and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through Chinese-style modernization, which would provide new opportunities for countries around the world, including New Zealand.

The Chinese report said: “Gerry Brownlee praised the tremendous achievements China has made in economic and social development, particularly in poverty alleviation, over the 75 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

“He acknowledged China’s massive economic scale and its impressive economic performance, stating that China’s development is beneficial to global stability and prosperity.

“New Zealand, as a trade-oriented nation, considers China its largest trading partner and hopes to expand economic and trade cooperation, increase cultural exchanges, and further develop New Zealand-China relations.”

Liu’s delegation included official photographers and a videographer, which would seem to indicate he was keen on publicity for his trip. However, New Zealand officials made no pre-announcement that he would be here, and subsequent comment has been limited and brief.

That is consistent with the increasing tendency of the Prime Minister and Ministers to talk only about our economic relationship with China.

But the speech by the Chinese Ambassador at the China Business Summit on Monday and Liu’s presence yesterday surely indicate that China regards the relationship as more complex than that.