Just when Prime Minister Chris Hipkins might have thought he could relax and bask in the success of his China trip, once again, an errant Minister derailed his progress.
It must have been a bittersweet day for the Prime Minister, starting with a formal welcome and a military guard of honour in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, lunch with the new Premier of China and then, after all that, a media conference dominated by questions about Justice Minister Kiri Allane, her mental health problems and complaints about her mistreating staff.
The tragedy of New Zealand politics is that the Allan affair is more likely to have an impact on voters than what Hipkins and his team of Ministers and Officials have achieved over the past three days in Beijing.
Even National Leader, Christopher Luxon, had to concede that Hipkins had done “a pretty good job”.
But in his former Air New Zealand role, Luxon had a host of dealings with China and knows how complex and difficult that can be.
Ironically during Jacinda Ardern’s visit in 2019, Air New Zealand’s then-Government Affairs manager, Andrew Kirton, was in Beijing trying to negotiate changes to the airline’s landing slots.
Kirton was back there yesterday alongside Hipkins as his Chief of Staff.
Throughout his visit to Beijing, the Chinese leaders have stressed the historical nature of New Zealand’s relationship with China.
To some extent, this is a fiction.
New Zealand’s much-vaunted 50 years of diplomatic ties with China are actually not that unique.
Australia recognized the Peoples’ Republic one day before us in December 1972.
Instead, it has been New Zealand’s unwillingness to go as far as Australia in endorsing the United States attempts to restrain China both economically and militarily, which attracts China’s attention.
There may have been a hint of those tensions in the dialogue that would have taken place before the visit between Chinese and New Zealand foreign affairs officials as they drafted the Communique after the formal talks between the two sides led by the two countries’ respective premiers yesterday.
It said, using the formal and stilted language beloved by diplomatic communique drafters, that “The two sides reaffirmed the importance of the 1972 Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations.”
What that sentence doesn’t say is that the 1972 Communique’s second and third paragraphs very clearly commit New Zealand to recognize Taiwan as part of China.
“The Chinese Government reaffirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China,” the Communique said.
“The New Zealand Government acknowledges this position of the Chinese Government.
“The New Zealand Government recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China.”
New Zealand has restrained itself from any comments which might be seen as favouring independence for Taiwan, and all Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will say on the issue is that New Zealand opposes the militarization of affairs in that region.
It is New Zealand’s unwillingness to engage in the confrontational language over China used by the United States, Britain and Australia, which has been noted in Beijing/
The Global Times yesterday said: “Chinese experts praised the independent policymaking of New Zealand, which shows the consensus shared by different political parties within the country on how to get along with China.
“It presents an example of how Western countries can withstand the pressures of unilateralism, Cold War mentality and hegemony, as well as preserve their strategic autonomy to develop ties with China and benefit their people.
Compared with other members of the Five Eyes Alliance – the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, New Zealand is a country that is able to maintain equal and pragmatic relations and mutual respect with China and bilateral ties have not been impacted by the China-US tension for a very long time.”
And while the potential for military confrontation gets all the headlines in the Western media, in China, the issue is the US’s economic policies.
Premier Li Qiang called on the international community in a speech opening the “Summer Davos” in Tianjin to “firmly oppose the politicization of economic and trade issues”.
Hipkins held formal talks with Li yesterday, followed by lunch.
The pair were entertained during the meal by the military band of the Peoples Liberation Army playing a selection of songs, including “Po Kare Kare Ana”, “Tutira Mai Nga Iwi”, “The Best Future”, and “The Little Girl Who Picks Mushrooms”.
Li, like others in the Chinese leadership, is now turning his focus on the United States and its policy of “decoupling” its industries from China supply chains.
“Unilateralism, protectionism and de-globalization are on the rise. Global challenges are escalating, and regional conflicts keep flaring up. Instability, uncertainty and unpredictability have become commonplace,” he said when opening the World Economic Forum in Tianjin on Tuesday.
“In a nutshell, what is lacking in today’s world is communication, not estrangement; cooperation, not confrontation; openness, not isolation; peace, not conflict.”
Hipkins, on the other hand, speaking at the Forum, called on countries to look outward rather than inward and warned that “where there’s more uncertainty, where there’s a greater drive towards security and resilience, it can encourage countries to look inwards.”
That sounded like it was aimed at the United States.
Asked at yesterday’s media conference about the comment, Hipkins took a roundabout route to point his finger at the US without actually naming them.
“I wasn’t referencing any country in particular,” he said.
“And in fact, I’d noticed, and I would note in many countries, electoral cycles play a role in these things as well. “
He said some countries had become more nationalistic during election campaigns.
“Obviously, whilst I’m very proud to be what I am, a New Zealander, New Zealand exists within a global community, and we’re a trading nation,’ he said.
‘”So we have a very outward-looking view of the world, and it’s in our interest for other countries to have a similar approach. “
That outward-looking view has seen Hipkins subtly endorse China’s campaign against the US while his three days in Beijing have consolidated our relationship with the country.
New Zealand now knows very clearly where the red lines are, and from what we’ve seen over the past three days, it would appear that if we stay away from those lines, then New Zealand’s single most important economic relationship can only grow.
It’s just a pity domestic politics has to cloud the view.