Former Prime Ministers John Key and Helen Clark at the China Business Summit

Two former Prime Ministers yesterday took a direct aim at the current leadership in the Government and Opposition and reinforced what an independent foreign policy should mean for New Zealand.

The clear message was that the relationship with China mattered.

It was a message also intended to be heard in Canberra, London and particularly Washington.

Both Helen Clark and John Key sitting side by side on a panel at the China Business Summit in Auckland, sounded like they were singing from the same song sheet.

Key’s argument was simple; China was likely to become more important economically to New Zealand in the years ahead.

Clark said the same argument that Norman Kirk had used in 1972 when recognising China; that it was simply nonsense not to recognise the government of a quarter of the world’s population surely applied today.

Both blamed President Trump for what Clark called a situation, not unlike a new cold war between the United States and China.

“If you sat here today and looked at the global position on China, you would say that position has hardened, deteriorated and loosened and a large part of that has to be sheeted home to Donald Trump and the United States,” said Key.

Key said that was because Trump measured the United States relationships with other countries by trade.

He said that Trump promised to change the trade situation to favour the United States, but in fact, things had got worse.

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“But that rhetoric has taken hold globally,” he said.

“Should New Zealand just follow that view blindly?”

POLITIK Attendees at the sutmmit

But he did concede that there were arguments to be had with China over issues like theSouth China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Dalai Lama and Uighurs.

Key said we were entitled to raise those issues with China.

“But are we more likely to be successful if we do have concerns about something we see in any country if in discussing that we have a friendly relationship with them?” he said.

“Or are we more likely to be successful if we ice that relationship out?

“And in my view, we a much more likely to be successful if we have a constructive relationship with our friends.”

It was a consistent theme through the summit; how to deal with what most speakers agreed was a changed China,

Helen Clark directly addressed the recent controversy over Five Eyes and the statement from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta that Five Eyes would not be New Zealand’s “first port of call” when making statements on human rights issues.

“When I was Prime Minister, its (Five Eyes) existence was actually never openly admitted; it was an under the radar intelligence sharing co-operative and frankly, that is where it should have stayed,” she said.

“It is a huge leap to go from that to an expectation of coordination of policy positions across the five countries.

“That would amount to a significant infringement of New Zealand sovereignty and therefore a limitation on our independence.”

Both Clark and Key emphasised that New Zealand had an independent foreign policy.

Key made it plain that New Zealand should not bow to the current pressures from Canberra, Washington and London to take a more confrontational stance with China.

“All I would say to New Zealanders, that I think whatever position we take, personally I hope it’s for a good relationship with China, that we do it in a way which is deliberate and we do it in the way where we decide because that’s what independent of foreign policy means,” he said.

Clark was even more forthright.

“New Zealand values its independent foreign policy,” she said.

“Our country isn’t anybody’s footstool; it is a small, western, geographically isolated, democratic society with long-standing relationships which it values with others of similar disposition.

“And I have therefore been somewhat staggered at uninformed and highly slanted commentary aired in sections of the United Kingdom and Australian press, to the effect that New Zealand is turning its back on its traditional partners to give preference to its relations with China.

“This is a slur and should be denounced as such.”

Clark said New Zealand was living through a period of heightened geopolitical tension where countries were being pressured to take sides.

“Our relationships with our traditional friends are very important to us,” she said.

“Our relationship with China is large and strategic and very valuable in which we must keep space to air points of difference.

“We should avoid a uni-dimensional approach to all our relationships to enable us to engage where appropriate and to distance where appropriate.

“The many links between New Zealand and China which have developed, notwithstanding the obvious differences in political systems and values, suggest that both countries view engagement as important and of mutual benefit.

“And I hope that will long continue to be the case.”

Key contrasted New Zealand’s situation with that of Australia.

“Australia’s always actually been a bit more robust; I suppose you could say that was because it’s an active member of ANZUS, and it always felt the need to follow the US lead more closely,” he said.

“Australia has lots of reasons why it wants a good relationship with China.

“And China has lots of reasons why it wants a good relationship with Australia.

“It’s of mutual benefit to both sides, and putting some respect back into the dialogue on both sides would be useful.”

POLITIK Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Key and Clark spoke after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, so her speech could not respond to their comments.

Instead, it seemed theirs were a response to hers.

Last year when she spoke to the Summit, Ardern devoted about 180 words to what she called “issues” involving Hong Kong, the Uighurs and Taiwan joining the World Health Organisation.

Yesterday, however, she set out in over 600 words her view that managing the relationship was not always going to be easy.

 “Given our two countries’ different histories, worldviews and political and legal systems, New Zealand and China are going to take different perspectives on some important issues,” she said. 

“But as Minister Mahuta said last month, we need to acknowledge that there are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree.

“This need not derail our relationship; it is simply a reality.”

Ardern singled out the Uighurs and Hong Kong as two of those issues.

“And it will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile,”  she said.

“This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo Pacific region, but also in Europe and other regions, are also grappling with.

“As a significant power, the way that China treats its partners is important for us.

“And we will continue to promote the things that we believe in and support the rules-based system that underpins our collective well-being.”

POLITIK Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi at the summit

The Chinese Ambassador, Wu Xi, responded with her country’s usual response that Xinjiang and Hong Kong were China’s internal affairs.

“Xinjiang and Hong Kong related issues are China’s internal affairs,” she said.

“They involve China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

“We hope that the New Zealand side will hold an objective and just position, abide by international law and not interfere in China’s internal affairs so as to maintain sound development.”

It’s not going to be easy maintaining the independent foreign policy that Clark and Key are so proud of.

China is a major issue facing this government and is already consuming a great deal of the bureaucracy’s time.

But our relationship with Beijing is critical, both in terms of the economic relationship and also as a symbol of the independence, we gained when we left ANZUS.

Clark and Key will be watching.