Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese; Japan Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida; NATO Secretary General,Jens Stoltenberg; Jacinda Ardern and South Korea President, Yoon Seok Youl at the Madrid summit

The Chinese Embassy in Wellington last night, in an unusual move, issued a formal press statement directly criticising comments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the NATO summit in Madrid.

The statement called Ardern’s comments “wrong and thus regrettable” and “not helpful for building trust.”

Though the Embassy frequently communicates with the media, it and the Ambassador have previously avoided any direct criticism of the Prime Minister and very rarely issue formal statements, preferring speeches or more casual “letters” or articles for publication as a way of communicating.

But Ardern’s presence as an observer at the NATO summit in Madrid, along with Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea President, Yoon Suk-yeol, has drawn a constant stream of criticism in Chinese media.

Nervous exporters here will worry that criticism could turn to action and that the country’s $20 billion annual exports to China could face the same kind of disruption faced by Australia after former Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an investigation into the country’s role in spreading Covid.

However Ardern’s speech was hardly a full-throated denunciation of China.

“Sadly, the shift in environment we are currently seeing is not limited to one region. In our neighbourhood, we see the mounting pressure on the international rules-based order,” she said.

“We see attempts to disrupt and destabilise – even New Zealand is targeted by Russian mis & dis information.  

“Separately, China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms. “

It is that segment that the Embassy has objected to.

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“We have taken note of the relevant comment made by the New Zealand side at the NATO session, which includes some misguided accusations against China, claiming that “China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms,” the spokesperson said.

“That allegation is wrong and thus regrettable.

“ It is obvious that such comment is not helpful for deepening mutual trust between the two countries, or for the efforts made by the two countries to keep our bilateral relations on the right track.”

However, Ardern was careful to qualify her comments so that she did not sound as though New Zealand was joining NATO as a military alliance.

“Here, we must respond to the actions we see,” she said.

“We must stand firm on the rules-based order, call for diplomatic engagement and speak out against human rights abuses at all times when and where we see them.  

“But we also must resist the temptation to simplify the increasingly complex world in which we live.  

“We must use diplomacy at every opportunity until it has proven to fail.”

“We must strengthen the resilience of the Indo-Pacific region through relationships and economic architecture rather than militarisation.”

The problem facing Ardern is that the NATO meeting was not quite as benign as her speech might suggest.

The focus of the summit was to unveil a new “Strategic Concept” for the organisation, which for the first time named a non-European country, China, as a threat.

“The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values,” the Concept said.

“The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.”

And as a consequence, the organisation clearly sees a role to be played by the four Indo-pacific countries it invited as observers.

“The Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect EuroAtlantic security,” it said.

The Concept makes it quite plain that NATO is a security alliance, and it would appear that New Zealand, as an Indo-Pacific partner, is part of that.

“We will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.”

Nikkei Asia last night reported that Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday. that NATO should “immediately stop groundless accusations and provocative remarks”.

“NATO’s strategic concept document ignores the facts…discredits China’s foreign policy, speaks ill of China’s normal military development and national defence policy and encourages confrontation,” Zhao said.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, in an appearance before Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee yesterday, offered a new angle on how those “shared security interests” might work in the Pacific with what appeared to be a suggestion of a pacific intelligence network.

 “It’s not unusual to have intelligence arrangements, what may well be the case, and we won’t know until the Pacific Islands Forum conversation is whether there is a stronger aspiration reflected from the Pacific around how those arrangements might better serve the Pacific’s assessment of its regional interests,” she said.

“I lift that up to a more strategic regional conversation because what the Solomons issue highlighted in the fact that China was not able to achieve a multilateral, regional agreement with Pacific nations.

“But the question mark still remains for Pacific nations as to what they want to achieve in their own region.”

 Australia has been instrumental in establishing a Pacific Fusion Centre in Vanuatu, which is supposed to be a clearing house for open-source human and environmental security, transnational crime and cybersecurity.

But a report late last year from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggested that the Centre would be more effective if it could use classified information and assessments.

That appears to be what Mahuta is suggesting.

The Chinese Embassy statement last night noted Ardern’s comments about China in the Pacific.

“China’s position on its relations with the South Pacific is consistent and clear,” it said.

“Our goal is to deepen the long-standing partnership with South Pacific countries to help island countries partners enhance their development capacity, better respond to climate change, the single greatest challenge facing them, and achieve sustainable development.

“In that process, China is ready to work together with all relevant parties sharing this goal. If there is indeed an escalation of tension in the Pacific, it cannot have been caused by China’s cooperation with its island partners to advance sustainable development.

“Such cooperation has nothing to do with the militarizationn of the region.

“If militarisation does exist in the South Pacific, it is clear to all who and what is fueling such tensions.”

The statement noted that this year was the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and New Zealand.

“Over the past half a century, through the joint efforts of both sides, our relationship has made tremendous progress and brought tangible benefits to both countries and, above all, both peoples.

“The achievements have not come out of nowhere or as a matter of course and should be cherished and nurtured carefully by both sides.

“China is willing to work with New Zealand on the basis of mutual respect, seeking common ground while shelving differences, and win-win cooperation, to implement the consensus between our leaders on promoting the healthy and steady development of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between us, and to continuously expand commonalities while constructively managing differences through dialogues and consultations.”

Beehive sources last night saw this as a muting of the overall response by China, but perhaps it was not so much what either side says that now matters.

Ardern was happy to stand in front of a row of national flags alongside three East Asian leaders who take a more militaristic view of security in this region.

In turn, China has escalated its response from its usual low-key approach to a formal statement criticising Ardern.

Our strategic environment is changing.