Beijing is any New Zealand Prime Minister’s biggest diplomatic test.
There they must balance the country’s economic future against New Zealand’s day-to-day engagement with old friends Australia and the United States.
On the surface, all looks well.
Certainly, if you read Chinese newspapers, that would be the impression.
The Global Times, published by the Communist Party of China, headlined its preview of the visit, “Setting food example for the West in keeping autonomy” while the “China Daily” headlined its preview “PM visit to Beijing seen as contributing to regional stability after pandemic.”
But away from the headlines in the newspapers, the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, yesterday did little to deny the account in “The Australian” that things were not so well in the relationship when Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta met China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang on March 24.
The Australian claimed Qin had “berated” Mahuta but did not say what his criticism was about.
Hipkins yesterday, asked about it at his first press conference on his five-day trip to China, did little to deny it.
“Her description of it to me was that it was a constructive meeting,” he said.
“Constructive meetings don’t always involve unanimous agreement.”
Hipkins would not specify what the areas of disagreement might have been.
All he would say was that, as with many diplomatic relationships, there were areas of agreement and then areas of disagreement.
That is the most candid admission from a New Zealand Prime Minister in recent years that the relationship with China is not as upbeat as it once was.
At the heart of that relationship has been the perception in Beijing that New Zealand’s independent foreign policy meant that it was seen as a country not always willing to endorse the anti-China line pursued by its Five Eyes partners, particularly the United States and Australia.
That meant New Zealand Ministers got easy access to their counterparts in Beijing.
They still do.
Trade Minister Damien O’Connor is part of Hipkins’ 85-member delegation, and he had his own meeting yesterday with China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.
New Zealand is currently chair of the CPTPP, and China, in recent weeks, has stepped up its plan to join the trade agreement.
“He (Wang Wentao) understands the role that we have as chair this year, and the fact is that any decision has to be agreed by all participants of TPP, and there’s a process to go through,” said O’Connor yesterday.
“He understands that, and that was a very positive engagement.”
It is widely thought that Canada and Australia, as members of the CPTPP and as allies of the United States, will find reasons to oppose China’s membership as part of The Global Times quoted of their general stance towards China on issues ranging from trade to security strategy.
The United Kingdom, an even closer ally of the United States, reached an agreement with the CPTPP partners at the end of March t join the agreement.
They are unlikely to support China becoming part of the agreement.
It is situations like this where China sees New Zealand as a possible intermediary.
The Global Times quoted Chen Hong, director of the New Zealand Studies Center at East China Normal University, who said that in the past, many may have thought that New Zealand, as a relatively small country, lacked diplomatic autonomy, “but in fact, it has more say in various aspects including economy and national defence, even more than its neighbouring country Australia.”
Grasping a major chance as the world enters the post-pandemic era, New Zealand has been able to exclude all kinds of pressures and influences to strengthen its relationship with China, setting a good example for other US allies of balancing well between its own interests in cooperating with China and its relations with Western countries, Chen told the Global Times.
New Zealand’s Ambassador to China, Grahame Morton, seemed to echo those views at a Powhiri at the New Zealand Embassy for Hipkins yesterday morning when he said that the end of Covid restrictions in China in February meant that the two countries could now recommence face-to-face contacts.
He directly addressed the 27-strong business delegation, which included some of the Cohn try’s biggest business names, such as Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran, Fonterra chair Peter Mcbride and Zespri chair Bruce Cameron.
“I would just invite you all those that are very familiar with China, and lots of you are, and also those that you went to China and maybe making new connections to treat this week in a number of different ways to keep your eyes open,” Morton said.
“Some aspects of China have changed just as some aspects of New Zealand have changed over the last few years.”
Those changes range from economic issues to political and security issues.
The economy is slowing.
Official data shows urban unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds hit a record 20.4% in April – about four times the broader unemployment rate.
The 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress last October consolidated the power of President Xi Jinping, which has led in turn to a hardening up of China’s policy towards Taiwan.
At the same time, the United States, during the Covid and Trump years, moved away from the policies of the Obama administration and began a more confrontational approach to China.
Technically New Zealand has not changed its policies.
It remains committed to its independent foreign policy, but the presence of Chris Hipkins at a NATO summit in Lithuania in a fortnight must raise questions in Beijing about just how New Zealand’s foreign policy has changed.
In 2022 NATO declared that China presented a “systemic challenge” to its members. In turn, China has been strongly critical of the expansion into East Asia.
Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu told the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore that, “In essence, attempts to push for NATO-like (alliances) in the Asia-Pacific is a way of kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations, which will only plunge the Asia-Pacific into a whirlpool of disputes and conflicts.”
Hipkins’s response to this is to say that the New Zealand-China relationship is 50 years old at least.
“It’s one that we value,” he said yesterday.
“It’s one that we put energy and effort into because we see it as mutually beneficial.
“Where we can work together, we can collaborate, we can cooperate with China, we seek to do that.
“Where we have areas of disagreement, we seek to create an environment where we can air those openly and honestly amongst ourselves.
“That’s one of the reasons why I’m here on this trip.”
Hipkins is beginning to win plaudits for his growing diplomatic skills.
At a Trade and Enterprise panel discussion in Beijing yesterday, Mattie Bekink from the Econoimist Intelligence Unit praised him for the way he handled a “gotcha” question from a reporter last Friday asking if he agreed with US Presdient Biden that President Xi Jinping was a dictator.
“It’s not language that I would use,” he said.
“The system of government that the Chinese people have is a matter for China.”
Bettink said she had to commend him.
“I think it’s too easy to fall into this tit for tat or get caught up in the tension between the United States and China,” she said.
“I think China does respect you if you kind of find a way to be neutral, which at the end of the day, you were right.”
And tnhat is essentially New Zealkand’s policy with China.
And late this afternoon, the real state of the relationship with China may become more obvious after Hipkins meets Zhao Leiji, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CPC and then China’s President Xi Jinping.
Zhao is number three in the China hierarchy, and tomorrow, Hipkins will meet number two, Chinese Premier Li Qiang.
These meetings with the top three members of the Chinese leadership will give our Prime Minister a unique insight into that leadership and its view of the world.
He has been prepared with a 200-page brief prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Meanwhile, last night, he was dining in Tianjin at the World Economic Forum with the Prime Ministers of Viet Nam, Mongolia and Barbados.
In what is being billed on huge signs around central Tianjin as “the summer Davos”, Hipkins will appear before a large audience of some of East Asia’s most exciting entrepreneurial talent on a panel with his fellow Prime Ministers to discuss “Rewiring growth amid fragility.”