Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and his 85-strong travelling party arrived in Beijing early this morning for his five days visit to the city and Shanghai.
Hipkins was met by New Zealand Ambassador Grahame Morton, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu and China’s Ambassador in Wellington, Wang Xialong.
He walked from the plane through a guard of honour to his limousine.
On Tuesday afternoon, he will be the first Five Eyes Prime Minister to meet President Xi Jinping since Jacinda Ardern’s flying visit in 2019.
This is further evidence of what appears to be a special relationship between the two countries.
Nevertheless, officials and China experts have downplayed the geo-strategic significance of the visit.
They point out that this year China has already received Prime Ministers from NATO member Spain and Malaysia, and Singapore, of course, the visit a week ago of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
This week Prime Ministers from Barbados, Viet Nam and Mongolia will also visit.
PM Chris Hipkins will meet President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhao Leji.
He may also meet the Minister of Communications, presumably because of talks over China joining the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA), which New Zealand, Chile, and Singapore have been developing.
China is keen to join DEPA, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said three weeks ago at the ministerial meeting between China and DEPA members on the sidelines of the 2023 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade Meeting in Detroit, the United States.
China also confirmed last week that it had lodged the documents necessary for it to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement of which New Zealand is the Registrar.
Wang Shouwen, China’s International Trade Representative and Vice Minister of Commerce, said that China had assessed and researched about 2,300 terms of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the CPTPP.
China was sorting out reform measures that needed to be carried out and amending regulations and laws for joining the CPTPP, Wang said.
There is an ambiguity in New Zealand’s relations with China.
Through the Helen Clark Labour government and the subsequent John Key centre-right National government, relations were warm and close but
New Zealand developed a reputation as a country that was “soft “on China.
But officials, speaking under Chatham House rules, told journalists that this trip to China with an emphasis on “reopening and reconnecting with markets” was consistent with what has been the Prime Minister’s theme for much of his travel this year.
“Reopening and reconnecting have also been the theme of what the Chinese government this year has been engaged in internationally,” one official said.
Hipkins will be accompanied by the Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor and Tourism Minister, Peeni Henare, along with 29 business leaders, including the Chair of its biggest company, Fonterra, the CEO of the national airline, Air New Zealand and the CEO of the digital movie graphics and special effects company, WETA.
And he says trade is what the visit is all about.
New Zealand has a range of bilateral and multilateral relationships<” he told journalists before he left.
“That’s nothing new, and we’ll continue to do that.
“So we value our relationship with China.
“It’s a very big trading partner for New Zealand.
“We’ll continue to aim to strengthen that relationship, continue to aim to build on that relationship.
“ But it is one of many relationships that we have internationally, and we’ll continue to do that.”
But for all that, New Zealand sits awkwardly between its traditional western-bloc friends and allies and its largest market, China, which absorbs nearly 33 per cent of all the country’s exports.
To underscore that, Hipkins’ next overseas trip is expected to be to Vilnius for the NATO summit next month.
New Zealand, along with Japan, South Korea and Australia, are all NATO partner countries in the East Asia region.
New Zealand sticks to the conventional Western policy towards Taiwan that it is a part of China, but it opposes any forced reunification.
“We are also concerned about escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” said Hipkins
“We believe that a diplomatic solution is the way forward here. We do not want to see further conflicts there.”
That pragmatic centrist approach typifies Hipkins’s approach to China.
“We’re never going to agree on everything,” he said.
“And there will be areas where we disagree, and they might disagree with some of the other international relationships that we have, and they’re absolutely at liberty to do so.”
However, New Zealand officials discount the proposition that New Zealand is getting “special treatment” from China, pointing out that despite historical problems, there may well be an Australian Prime Ministerial visit this year.
But for the meantime, Hipkins is the first Five Eyes Prime Minister to visit since Coivd and Kast night’s welcome, along with the last of meetings he has to suggest China is pleased to see him.