Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO with PM Jacinda Ardern in Wellington in August, 2019

In what looked like a warning China’s Ambassador to New Zealand has said China’s relations with New Zealand were not established as a “matter of convenience.”

His comments come as it becomes clear New Zealand is moving to align itself more closely with the United States-led western bloc than it has done at any time since the country was excluded from ANZUS in 1985.

POLITIK understands in what is likely to be seen by China as a further provocation that the Prime Minister will attend the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of this month.

But former Prime Minister Helen Clark is also subtly reminding the Government that New Zealand’s foreign policy has been built on the balance between China and the US.

Clark told POLITIK she thought great care had to be taken with the use of language and with managing perceptions with respect to New Zealand’s relationship with both China and the United States.

“It is a question of being able to express NZ’s western and democratic values and also maintain a broad basket of economic and other relationships,” she said.

And she raised a subtle question about Ardern’s presence at the NATO summit.

Ardern will be joined by other non-European leaders, either Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese or Foreign Minister Penny Wong, South President Yoon Seok You and probably Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

The summit is expected to adopt a new “Strategic Concept” for the alliance, which adopts a global view of the threats to European security.

The official “NATO Review” has just published an analysis of this.

Advertisment

“In a world that no longer revolves around the Euro-Atlantic region and is increasingly defined by China’s strategic rise and the growing centrality of the Indo-Pacific region, the Alliance will need to think more globally about security,” it says.

“NATO must therefore adapt to a world in which the Euro-Atlantic region will remain important but will probably become a secondary theatre in world politics, as well as in the context of US geo-strategy.

“These changes should push the Alliance to develop a more global approach to security.”

It says three stand out: the global implications of China’s rise, the evolution of the Sino-Russian relationship, and America’s need to prioritise between Europe and Asia, and what that may mean for NATO and European security.

Clark also attended a NATO summit, but she emphasised that her interest was solely in New Zealand’s participation in the military actions in Afghanistan.

And she indicated that Ardern should focus only on Ukraine at this year’s summit.

“I went to a discussion on Afghanistan 🇦🇫 on the margins of the NATO summit in 2007 – the PMs of Sweden, Finland, and Australia – all also non-NATO – attended as well,” she said.

“The attendance was task focused on Afghanistan, as one would assume this year’s NZ attendance would be task-focused on Ukraine.”

Clark is far too skilled a politician (and too much a Labour loyalist) ever to criticise the current Government directly.

But her comments to POLITIK sound like a warning to the current Government.

“The key issue in maintaining the substance and perception of NZ foreign policy will be to ensure that NZ is making its own decisions based on its own values and interests and not blindly following others,” she said.

A letter from China’s Ambassador in New Zealand, Wan Xiaolong, last Friday to the New Zealand China Council suggests that his country is not convinced New Zealand is not “blindly following others.”

“All is not rosy, however,” the letter said in describing the China-New Zealand relationships.

“Indeed, the relationship has got its fair share of challenges, the foremost of which is the way we address the differences between us.”

The letter said the real and crucial question “is whether we would be able to manage these differences constructively so that they would not be blown out of proportions or, in the words of Prime Minister Ardern, be allowed to define our relationship.

“How we answer this question will decide where the baseline for this all-important relationship lies.”

The Ambassador said there was nothing New Zealand and China could not talk about, including issues related to human rights and “how we could avoid misunderstanding and join our hands

in promoting peace, stability and common prosperity in the South Pacific region.”

But there was also a strong hint that China was becoming frustrated with New Zealand’s growing lean to the west.

“For China, developing a strong relationship with NZ has never been a choice of convenience,” he said.

“Rather, it has always been a long-term, strategic decision in line with our independent foreign policy of peace and common development.

“Nothing that has happened in the global and regional situation has changed our commitment to our partnership, and nothing will.

“On the contrary, as we see it, our working together, either bilaterally or at global and regional levels, have taken on even greater importance and urgency in view of the tectonic shifts in the global landscape.”

The letter raises memories of what happened at the end of 2018 when the GCSB did not approve Huawei providing equipment to Spark for its 5G network and when it also issued a statement claiming China had engaged in a cyber-attack on a New Zealand entity.

In early 2019 A Chinese Minister suddenly pulled out of the  China-New Zealand Tourism year; there were reports of  Chinese tourists being discouraged from visiting, and an Air New Zealand plane bound for Shanghai was turned away in mid-air.

Then after a weekend of consultations between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Prime Minister’s Office, in carefully scripted comments at a press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that China was a very important and highly valued partner for New Zealand.

The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, “Global Times”, on Sunday questioned the NATO Asia-Pacific strategy.

“It is worrisome that the military alliance may engage more with Asia-Pacific and transform into a global bloc,” it said.

It quoted an anonymous Beijing-based “expert” as calling or caution as the situation gave rise to many questions.

“Will NATO finally grow into a behemoth that challenges the UN-centered global order?” the paper said.

“What does that scenario mean for China’s development and growth?

“How should China deal with a mounting NATO presence and possible pressure on China?”

It has yet to be seen whether Ardern’s trip to Madrid will focus solely on Ukraine or whether New Zealand will endorse NATO’s extension to the Asia-Pacific region.

If Ardern does do that, then New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy is likely to be tested, as it has not been since 1985.