China’s President Xi Jinping was almost effusive in his opening words with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in Beijing late yesterday afternoon.
In contrast, in 2019, when he met former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he warned that “our two sides must trust each other to pursue mutual benefits.”
This time, Xi said the relationship had remained “robust and strong” and had brought tangible benefits to people in our two countries and contributed to regional peace, stability and prosperity.
“China always views New Zealand as a friend and a partner,” he said.
But Hipkins was less sure about the strength of the relationship when he met New Zealand media after the 40-minute meeting with Xi.
Asked if he would use the same language, would he describe China as a friend and partner, his reply was enigmatic.
“I would describe the relationship between New Zealand and China as an incredibly important one,” he said.
“We work together on areas where it’s in our interests to do that.
“We disagree from time to time, and we convey those disagreements.”
That statement was typical of much of what Hipkins has said in public in China.
All of Hipkins’s meetings with the travelling media and his participation in a power panel at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin seem to have been marked by almost-excessive caution on his part.
Xi, on the other hand, continued his opening remarks at their meeting in the Great Hall of the People and found plenty to like about the New Zealand Prime Minister.
He said that since taking office, Hipkins had stated multiple times that he valued China’s New Zealand relations and would continue to strengthen cooperation with China.
“I highly appreciate this,” Xi said.
“I, myself, am always attaching great importance to our relations with New Zealand.”
He referred to his visit to New Zealand in 2014 when the two counties announced a comprehensive strategic partnership.
“Our bilateral ties have continued to grow in a sound and steady manner amidst the changing international landscape,” said Xi.
The Chinese President said that Hipkins’s visit this time was very meaningful.
“I am also aware that the international community, especially countries in our region, have been following your visit very closely.
“We should continue to work together to kick start a new 50 years of bilateral relations and promote steady and sustained progress in our comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Maybe Xi’s generosity might be explained by Hipkins’ refusal to buy into the debate about whether President Biden was right when he called him a dictator.
So did it come up in the meeting?
Hipkins wouldn’t answer at first, saying he would not speak for China.
“I’m not going to relay any issues that China raised with me,” he said.
“I did not raise the matter.”
That sounded like China had raised his comments, presumably gratefully.
Hipkins used the same line that he wouldn’t” speak for China on whether they raised their concerns about growing United States assertiveness in the Pacific.
“I don’t want to speak on China’s behalf,” he said.
“While there is an easy answer to that question, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to give it. “
That sounded like a “yes”.
Overall the meeting appeared to canvas a range of international issues as well as specific issues in the bilateral relationship.
While it seemed China wanted to talk geopolitics, Hipkins also wanted to talk trade, and it was he, rather than Xi, who raised the question of China joining the CPTPP.
Officials said there had been an emphasis on economic issues at the meeting.
“We raised all of the issues that you would expect,” said Hipkins.
“Obviously, there was a particular economic focus to our conversations.
“It’s an issue of such importance to New Zealand exporters.
“We also had the opportunity to talk about current issues; the relationship between China and the US was discussed, and the situation in Ukraine was discussed, but the Pacific was discussed, human rights were discussed.”
Apparently Hipkins stressed New Zealand’s desire that China work with the US on reviving their relationship.
But earlier in the day, Hipkins had travelled to Tianjin for the World Economic Forum’s so-called “Summer Davos.”
After a brief meeting with the founder of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, Hipkins joined two other Prime Ministers; the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley and the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Pham Minh Chinh along with China’s chair of its State Owned Assets, Zhang Yuzhou and WTO Director General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to discuss “rewiring growth”.
Again, Hipkins was the cautious voice on the panel, contenting himself to talk up New Zealand’s “green growth” and advocacy of international free trade.
But then he made what was a veiled critique of populism, presumably aimed at the United States.
“I think we would like to see a world that continues to be open looking,” he said.
“There is a trend in some parts of the world to be more inward-looking.
“Some of that, I think, is driven by the challenges that we all face as a planet.
“So where there’s more uncertainty, where there’s a greater drive towards security and resilience, it can encourage countries to look inwards, but actually, looking outwards how they are going to solve those problems.”
Other speakers were more direct in their criticism of the United States, focussing on its attempts to get the world to join it in “decoupling” from China and its economy.
Pham Minh Chinh singled out “protectionism and decoupling” as one of the the headwinds that could restrain his country’s prospects for growth.
Panel moderator WEF President, Borge Brende, had pointed out that 70 per cent of the world’s economic growth post-covid had come from Asia. Though China was the big engine that drove that, Viet Nam is one of Asia’s fast-rising economic success stories.
It grew its GDP by eight per cent last year and will achieve seven per cent this year.
That compares with China, which did 2.99 per cent last year and which the IMF forecasts to do 5.24 per cent this year.
Nevertheless, it is the sheer size of the Chinese economy, which means it dominates Asia.
China’s state-owned enterprises make up over 50 per cent of its economy.
Zhang is the Chair of its State Owned Assets SupervisionCommission which means he effectively controls over half of the country’s economic activity.
He, too, is worried about “decoupling” and demonstrating the paradox that modern China used a classical free market economic theory to support his argument.
“I think the global trade has been growing slower than what people had expected,” he said.
“There are several causes; for example, trade barriers that post new barriers to global trade.
“The opportunity to begin policy coordination among major economies could be better..
“Also, we often hear talk of decoupling, and related practices, which also certainly impede international cooperation on trade because if we follow the theory of comparative advantage, different economies should fully leverage their own unique strengths to engage in trade and exchange so that we can minimise the social cost and realise development for all.”
Hipkins would agree with all of that.
He had a good day in Beijing.
Last night at a barbeque at the New Zealand Embassy there for the 27-strong business delegation that accompanies him, its leaders were happy with the results from their own talks and meetings and were particularly happy with the positive nature of the Hipkins-Xi meeting.
They believed that the so-called “Halo” effect of that promoted by China’s party and state-owned media would have incalculable benefits for New Zealand exporters.
And so though Hipkins looked personally uncomfortable at times yesterday, he could count the day as a big win.