Both the Prime Minister and the Chinese Ambassador appeared yesterday to very subtly put some distance into the relationship between New Zealand and China.
Comments from the two women at the China Business Summit were the first real signs that things have changed in the relationship since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.
But this is not a big change; really more of a slight shift.
The Prime Minister began the process in opening the conference by raising New Zealand’s “principled”concerns about the recent Hong Kong security law and the Uighur Muslim people of eastern China.
In turn, the Ambassador reminded the conference the Uighurs and Hong Kong were internal matters for China, and her country would not countenance any interference in its internal affairs.
This was all very polite and carefully worded. Ardern’s speech was vetted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ambassador’s would have been carefully prepared by her Embassy.
These are troubling times in terms of China’s relationship with the west and China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats have been vigorously defending their country and warning its critics to back off as the US, in particular, ramps up its response to China.
But importantly New Zealand has not joined other Five Eyes countries like Australia and Canada and withdrawn its extradition agreement with Hong Kong.
Nor is New Zealand, at this stage, proposing any other sanctions on Hong Kong or China.
The reason for that is obvious and was spelled out for the conference by the CEO of the ANZ Bank, Antonia Watson.
“Our clients believe the relative importance of the US to the global economy will decline further as China’s output will be more resilient and bounce back faster,” she said.
“We’re very thankful that China’s economy is expected to outperform most other parts of the world.”
The former Reserve Bank Governor, National Party Leader and now, chair of the New Zealand subsidiary of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Don Brash, said that many economists using purchasing-power-parity exchange rates suggested the US economy and China were already on rough parity in terms of size.
“I have recently seen a paper which showed that between 2011 and 2013, China used as much cement as the US used in the entire 20th century,” he said.
“And I think it reminds us just the extraordinary size that country is and an extraordinary market for New Zealand.”
Simply, as the Prime Minister pointed out, the economic relationship with China is critical. But she was careful to link the economic success to the political relationship.
“The partnership, continues to deliver benefits for both of us supported by an ongoing commitment to a one-China policy; trade ties, in excess of two billion dollars last year,” she said.
Like her National Party predecessors, Ardern has been keen to remind China of New Zealand’s political support and reluctant to criticise.
But the international tide is turning against the assertive nationalism of President Xi Jinping.
In a recent “Foreign Affairs”article, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia under President Obama and author of that administration’s “Asian pivot”and Mira Rapp-Hooper, one of Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s foreign policy advisors, argue that China, “imbued with crisis-stoked nationalism, confident in its continued rise, and willing to court far more risk than in the past—may well be in the middle of a foreign policy rethink that will reverberate around the world.
The authors write that in the months since the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, “China has tightened its grip over Hong Kong, ratcheted up tensions in the South China Sea, unleashed a diplomatic pressure campaign against Australia, used fatal force in a border dispute with India, and grown more vocal in its criticism of Western liberal democracies.”
Against this background, the United States has moved to impose various sanctions on China and is now pressing the United Kingdom to take similar actions. The UK, Canada and Australia have withdrawn from their extradition treaties with Hong Kong to protect protesters from Hong Kong who have moved to those countries to avoid arrest by the Chinese authorities.
But New Zealand has made no formal moves against China.
However, the Prime Minister plainly felt the need to do more than adopt her usual practice in formal speeches of simply ignoring China’s problems.
“New Zealand is an open democracy with a focus on the rule of law,” she said.
“We take a principles-based approach to our foreign policy, and we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and an assessment of our interests.”
She said the New Zealand public had “a direct and a resounding interest in the outcome.”
“As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law; the situation of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.
“This is important to who we are.”
She said the situation in Hong Kong directly impacted thousands of New Zealanders living with close ties to Hong Kong.
“It’s quite natural for us to raise a concern about Hong Kong’s security rules.
“We believe we are representing real and actual issues for New Zealanders.”
She went on to make a general affirmation of the importance of the relationship.
“China is one of our most important relationships, our comprehensive strategic partnership is in good shape and continues to work well, delivering benefits for both sides, underpinning our relationship are successes and shared interests and shared history, which continue to bind our countries together,” she said.
“We will have different perspectives on some issues, and I expect that we will continue to have those going into the future. “
China’s Ambassador, Wu Xi, spent much of her speech to the conference, lauding the relationship between China and New Zealand. But even so, her comments contained a caution.
“The key to our successful bilateral relationship in the past two decades is our commitment to practical cooperation and respect for each other’s interests and accommodation of each other’s major concerns, instead of trying to change or remodel the other,”she said.
“We respect each other.
“I am confident that we will carry on this tradition.”
She acknowledged the importance of the economic relationship.
“Natural economic complementarity has served our two countries well,” she said.
“Practical cooperation in various fields has gone from strength to strength. A
“And it has benefited our two peoples and countries.
“However, we should not take our relationship for granted.
“We should make sure that our bilateral relations are immune from various viruses in these trying times.”
China experts at the conference were intrigued by the use of the virus analogy with its implication that any disruption to the relationship could come from an external source.
Wu too referred to the comprehensive strategic partnership and said it meant China and New Zealand supported each other on sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“China has always followed the principle of non-interference in others internal affairs,”she said.
“At the same time, China stands ready to safeguard its core and major interests.
Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong. Xinjiang and Tibet will touch on China’s sovereignty and security.
“And these are all China’s internal affairs.”
In comparison with recent rhetoric in Chinese media and in statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, the Ambassador’s comments are mild.
Last week, for example, Hua described Australia’s response to Hong Kong as being one of “undisguised hypocrisy and blatant double standards.”
“Acting as a cat’s paw will eventually bring harm to oneself,” she said.
“Any attempts to exert pressure on China will never succeed.
“China urges the Australian side to immediately change its course and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs in any form so as to avoid further harm to China-Australia relations.”
Both Ardern’s comments and the Ambassador’s speech point to a subtle change in the relationship between New Zealand and China; but it is subtle and not substantial. For the meantime, it should be business as usual.