Education Minister Chris Hipkins has travelled to Beijing this weekend with a message to reassure the Chinese that New Zealand still wants a good relationship with them.
His trip comes as the war of words against New Zealand has intensified with another editorial in an official Chinese newspaper criticising New Zealand.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that a clampdown on shellfish imports from New Zealand may also be linked to the rift.
And there is a widespread belief in Wellington that a “refresh” of the China – New Zealand Free Trade Agreement is now delayed.
People familiar with the China-New Zealand relationship say the real concern is that New Zealand now appears to be being lumped in with Australia as a China critic.
The situation has been brought to a head not only by the Defence Policy Statement released a week ago but also some of the comments made subsequently by acting- Prime Minister, Winston Peters.
Hipkins’ trip appears to be part of a series of scheduled Ministerial visits to China this year which will culminate with the Prime Minister opening the new New Zealand Embassy in Beijing in October.
In a statement issued before he left, he said: “In my meeting with (Education) Minister Chen Baosheng I will communicate New Zealand’s high regard for China and our continuing commitment to our education partnership.”
But his trip has taken on added importance because he is the first New Zealand Minister to travel to China since the controversial defence Policy Statement was launched on July 6.
China reacted to that with a formal protest in Beijing and in Wellington, comments criticising New Zealand at the daily Foreign Ministry briefing and an opinion piece also criticising New Zealand in an opinion piece in the “Global Times” — a pro-Government newspaper.
The Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, appeared to take exception to comments in the Defence Policy Statement which said: “ Yet as China has integrated into the international order, it has not consistently adopted the governance and values championed by the order’s traditional leaders.
“Both domestically and as a basis for international engagement, China holds views on human rights and freedom of information that stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand.”
And the statement said China had created artificial islands in the South China Sea which featured new radar and communications arrays, airstrips and hangars, deep water harbours, and weapons systems, “which provide China with the ability to quickly deploy a range of additional capabilities in and around key international shipping lanes.”
And it said that China was enhancing its influence in the Pacific the region, including through development assistance and support for economic engagement.
This contrasted with the 2016 Defence White Paper which simply referred to China as an important strategic partner.
Given the way the Wellington bureaucracy works and the way a document as important as the Defence Policy Statement works its way through Cabinet Committees and then Cabinet, the Chinese might well take the view that it represents a fundamental shift by the whole New Zealand Government; that it has the approval of the Prime Minister down.
Hence the spokesperson’s response: “ We have noted the China-related content in the relevant document issued by New Zealand. We have lodged stern representations with New Zealand on the wrong remarks it has made on China.”
.But China has coupled the statements in the Defence Policy Statement with a review of the Biketawa Declaration, which both Australia and New Zealand along with other South Pacific Forum members signed at the 2000 Forum meeting.
The Declaration was a framework for coordinating responses to regional crises such as the Fiji coups or ethnic violence in the Solomon Islands.
It is currently updated, and Australian reports have suggested its focus will now be on countering Chinese influence in the region.
And then Peters last Monday said: “We live in a much more highly stressed area of geopolitical competition because we have left, some of us, a vacuum there which others would fill.”
The “China Daily” newspaper is widely believed to be run by the publicity department of the Chinese Communist Parrty.
It has addressed Peters’comemnts, and last Wednesday in an editorial said: “If there is a political vacuum in the region, it is because Australia and New Zealand have for too long leaned on the United States, without making a long-term commitment to improving the well-being and welfare of the island nations.”
By itself, the war of words is not considered necessarily a major problem.
One seasoned New Zealand diplomat said that if China’s responses could be measured on a scale of 11, what had been said would be about three.
But there are now questions about a more tangible response from China.
Just over a week ago the Ministry of Primary Industries issued an alert about toxic algae contaminating shellfish in Akaroa Harbour.
The MPI alert stressed that it excluded commercial shellfish sales.
“Commercially harvested shellfish – sold in shops and supermarkets, or exported – is subject to strict water and flesh monitoring programmes by MPI to ensure they are safe to eat,” it said
Nevertheless, POLITIK understands that the Chinese are now subjecting imports from New Zealand shellfish to extra surveillance and inspection as they enter the country.
It is the potential for the war of words to flow into the commercial sector and possibly sectors like the export education industry which is concerning China watchers in New Zealand.
Hipkins’ report on his trip is awaited with considerable interest because any disruption of the export education industry could be very damaging.
There are over 100,000 fee-paying overseas students in New Zealand; 30% of them are from China.
There are also concerns that in much of the commentary from China over the past week, New Zealand has been coupled with Australia.
That country, possibly under pressure from Trump’s Washington, has had a much more confrontational relationship with China than New Zealand.
There are fears that the Government here is being drawn back closer to the old ANZUS partners and away from what the former Prime Minister, Bill English, called a “truly independent foreign policy.”
The next test will be whether China proceeds with the ongoing negotiations to upgrade the China-New Zealand Free Trade agreement.
Any stalling of those negotiations would surely send the message to Wellington that its long honeymoon with China and the Chinese economy is now over.