In a way, it was a diplomatic high noon; first, the Prime Minister, then an hour later, the Chinese Ambassador, both reviewing Chris Hipkins’ recent trip to China.
The pair were keynote speakers at the China Business Summit in Auckland.
But they reviewed the China trip under the shadow of Hipkins’s trip last week to China’s arch-nemesis, NATO.
The first question was what Hipkins would now say about China having just returned from the NATO summit in Lithuania, whose communique said, “China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”
And how would the Ambassador respond given that he exhorted New Zealand not to open the door to the “devil“— NATO — in a statement last week?
Hipkins’ trip to NATO came only a week after he had been given a red-carpet welcome in Beijing, including being told by President Xi Jinping that New Zealand was a “friend and partner”, a sentiment the New Zealand Prime Minister refused to reciprocate.
For the audience, which included most of New Zealand’s biggest exporters like Fonterra, Zespri and the meat companies, all heavily depend on the China market, any signs that the relationship had been damaged would be bad news.
To underline how bad that could possibly be, also present was Australia’s associate Trade Minister Tim Ayres, who spoke about the 80.5 per cent tariff imposed on Australian barley exports by China after Barley producers found themselves in the firing line as bilateral relations between China and Australia soured dramatically following the Morrison government’s April 2020 call for an independent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
A month later, China’s Commerce Ministry accused Australian grain growers of dumping barley, hurting Chinese producers. Beijing imposed an 80.5 per cent tariff on barley, sending local growers scrambling to find alternative, less lucrative markets.
Hipkins’s speech turned out to be a comprehensive and obviously carefully drafted review not just of the relationship with China but also the over-arching pillars of New Zealand’s foreign policy.
A key segment addressed the NATO issue, albeit that Hipkins did not name the alliance.
He said New Zealand had a long and proudly independent foreign policy, but an independent foreign policy did not mean isolation, neutrality, or a fixed pre-determined view of how we would act on a particular issue.
“Nor does it mean “going it alone,” he said.
“It’s clear that in this complex and interconnected world – one where New Zealand’s geographical remoteness will not shield us –- charting a way forward through many of the most pressing regional and global issues often requires working together with others.
“Where we share a common view with our partners, we will act to protect and preserve what is important to us. “
That New Zealand’s approach will often align with that of our most like-minded partners, with whom we share many common interests and values, should not be surprising.
“This includes countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan and others.”
“Australia, in particular, is New Zealand’s only ally and our closest partner. It is natural that we will often have a similar perspective on the sharpening geostrategic environment.”
And he made it clear that this approach could lead to differences with China.
“Our shared liberal democratic values and respect for human rights and international rules means that we have joined partners like Australia, the United States, and others, to raise concerns about a range of issues, including, for example, the human rights situation in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang.”
The Ambassador’s speech was drafted well before he spoke, but even so, one section seemed to directly address Hipkins’ talk of seeking partners with common interests and shared values.
“In China, we believe that the path a country chooses for its development cannot and should not be divorced from its own history and tradition; otherwise, it will lose its roots and thus its identity and direction,” he said.
“Equally importantly, it must keep abreast of the trends of the times.
“While staying in the bubbles of a bygone era might give people a false sense of comfort or security, it will not solve their problems, nor will it enable them to grasp the opportunities of the present, let alone to embrace the future.”
The Ambassador conceded that in the short term, the Chinese economy might encounter some headwinds, and those were on display shortly after he spoke when China’s second-quarter GDP growth figures came in at 6.3 per cent, above the first quarter but below what many analysts had been forecasting.
And there is little doubt that China is concerned about the United States – EU campaign to “de-risk” their industries from too much reliance on the Chinese market and supply chain.
The immediate cause of China’s slowdown, though, has been a dramatic slump in its property market which has led to high youth unemployment rates, currently running for people aged between 16 and 24 at 20.8 per cent.
However, figures given to the recent New Zealand business delegation to China suggested the real figure might be as high as 30 per cent.
Because of this slowdown, the Chinese Government is forecasting annual GDP growth this year of five per cent, well behind the ten per cent plus that the country grew by annually in the early 2000s.
Nevertheless, Raymond Yeung, the Chief Economist for Greater China for the ANZ Bank, told the summit that even at the lower GDP growth rate, he still expected China to add $1 trillion a year to its GDP over the next few years.
And so both Hipkins and Wang, in their obvious search for common ground, highlighted economic ties in their speeches.
“In this increasingly complex global environment, our relationship with China will continue to require careful management,” said Hipkins.
“New Zealand has been firm and consistent in our commitment to our one-China policy, and more recently in the implementation of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
“My sense from my visit is that the relationship is in good shape, evidenced by the warm reception I received and the range of outcomes achieved during my visit.
“In engaging with China’s leadership, I made the point that in this relationship, we will continue to talk candidly, but respectfully, about issues on which we differ. The same way in which we would with any other country.”
The Ambassador echoed some of those themes.
“The growing relationship between China and New Zealand over the past 50 years has amply demonstrated that our common interests far outweigh our differences, that we are each other’s friends and partners rather than rivals, opportunities rather than threats,” he said.
“Both countries pride themselves on an independent foreign policy; both oppose confrontation, conflicts and being forced to choose sides.
“We share a commitment to free trade and an open world economy, the international system with the United Nations at its core and the international order based on international law.”
But what is said in public on foreign affairs issues can often mask what is being said in private, and the Ambassador’s warning about staying in the bubble of a bygone era would seem to point to a concern that New Zealand is being drawn back to its old Anglo allies, particularly the United States and Britain.
Hipkins has not helped dispel that concern with his decision to describe the US as a “friend and partner” but to determinedly not describe China as the same.
Maybe that was why the Ambassador deliberately used the phrase to describe the relationship with New Zealand twice in his speech.
But maybe also, he was hoping his audience might start questioning what New Zealand needs to do to ensure that China continues to use the phrase when describing its relationship with New Zealand.