Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been invited to China for what could be her second trip in less than a year.
POLITIK understands the invitation is for early in the new year, but, according to Government sources, no decision has yet been made on whether to accept it.
However, the very existence of the invitation underscores just how dramatically Australia and New Zealand are diverging over the China relationship.
And that divergence has the potential to undermine the trans-Tasman relationship.
No Australian Prime Minister has been invited to Beijing since Malcolm Turnbull visited in 2016.
Instead, Australian Prime Ministers go to Washington. Scott Morrison will be there this week.
The Australian-New Zealand leadership forum which concluded in Auckland on Friday did not formally address this anomaly, but along the Sky City corridors, delegates including senior New Zealand and Australian politicians, diplomats and businesspeople had plenty to say about it.
In a way, Australia is trapped, when it comes to the crunch, bound by the ANZUS security relationship and by its own different geography into “choosing” the United States over China.
In contrast, as the former National Trade Minister, Tim Groser, likes to say, New Zealand’s lefties did the country a huge favour in 1985 by pressuring the Lange Government into allowing itself to be forced out of ANZUS.
The mantra, shared by both Labour and National, is that now, New Zealand has an independent foreign policy which means that it can choose where it goes on an issue by issue basis.
But it’s not that simple.
New Zealand could join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, sign a declaration of support for the Belt and Road initiative and even fudge its rhetoric over the South China Sea, and Australia could only make diplomatic grumbles.
But now New Zealand faces considerable Chinese pressure to include HuaweI in Spark’s 5G networ, an issue that China has indicated it sees as a litmus test of the whole relationship with New Zealand.
Australia is quite clear.
Australia’s Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, was one of a number of Australian Government and Opposition Ministers and MPs in Auckland last Thursday and Friday for the Australia-New Zealand leadership forum.
He told POLITIK that Australia would not have participants in its 5G networks “that could be under the instruction of foreign governments.”
“That has been a principled decision taken in the national interest,” he said.
“We are not targeting any one company or countries but recognizing that these new technologies will be incredibly pervasive, and that is a good thing in terms of the transformation they can bring, but we do need to protect the national interest in terms of being confident that they will be used in ways that benefit commercially and that their application is consistent with the values that we hold dear.”
Birmingham said Australia did not seek to advocate its position to New Zealand.
“But where we have been requested to, we have explained the policy rationale and the technical aspects behind the decision that Australia has taken, but they are Australian decisions.”
The Opposition spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, was also in Auckland and she had breakfast with Jacinda Ardern. Foreign Minister, Winston Peters and Australian Labor Party Leader, Anthony Albanese, on Friday.
Wong told POLITIK that the Australian Labor party fully supported the security treaty (ANZUS) with the United States and that it also supported the Government’s policy on Huawei.
The Australian Government position on Huawei is one of the main reasons for its trade standoff with China and China’s refusal to invite Morrison for a visit.
China stepped up its rhetoric against Australia at a press conference in Beijing last Thursday.
“Australia was the first country to ban Chinese companies from its 5G network roll-out without any evidence of risks,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying.
“It is blatant discrimination against Chinese companies.
“Australia has also been lecturing other countries about the 5G network and encouraging them to follow suit.
“Such disgraceful and immoral conduct is against basic market principles and international rules, which China firmly opposes.
“We advise some in Australia to not overstep their bounds, to not go further astray on their wrong path, and to stop doing such things that hurt the interests of Australia itself and others.”
If New Zealand is one the countries which has been “lectured” — and Birmingham’s comments would seem to hint it might have been — that points to the dilemma the Government faces.
If the United States or Australia were to play hardball over our relationship with China, our Government would face some very hard choices.
The two days of the Forum were a celebration of the closeness of the trans-Tasman relationship and the commonalities of the two countries.
“This is a relationship that is deeper and more diverse than almost any other that you can find between two countries on Earth,” Ardern said in her keynote speech.
“We are allies who cooperate closely together in defence and security operations around the world.
Ardern gave permission for her comments to be published but, otherwise, proceedings were governed by Chatham House rules which means speakers cannot be identified.
Overall the mood was one of trans-Tasman togetherness.
“Ditto,” said one Australian Minister after he followed a New Zealand Minsietr’s exposition on the way he currently saw the world.
Another Australian opposition politician described the ANZAC bridge in Sydney with its statute of an Australian soldier at one end and a New Zealander at the other as a metaphor for the relationship.
But there were hints that when things got down into the detail, the relationship still had its tensions.
There was an obvious reluctance on the part of the Australians to agree to joint promotions on international events taking place in Australia and a diplomatic “no” to a suggestion of a common visa policy.
Like Ardern, Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges, was happy to make his comments on the record.
After he had described the trans-Tasman relationship as “New Zealand’s most important” he went on to talk about his recent trip to China.
He said he found the country preoccupied with the trade dispute with the US.
“I detected, some might say it was bravado,” he said.
“But I think in truth it was an underlying confidence about their position in the world; a desire to deal with and resolve the dispute but also a clear sense that they were not going to give in.”
To a large extent, New Zealand and Australia share an opposition to the US-China tariff war.
Birmingham told POLITIK that unilateral tariff hikes were not the way to resolve what might be genuine grievances that the US might have about China.
So are New Zealand and Australia in danger of diverging on China?
“We all have to stand for our values and our principles,” said Birmingham.
“But we can do that but also recognizing that engagement has provided the best opportunities for transformation.
“But at the same time we have to protect our sovereignty, our values, our way of life and that is about sticking to your principles at every level.”
You won’t hear Ardern or Bridges talk about the China relationship in those terms.
In our post-ANZUS era, our politicians from either party, do not wave either the American – or the Chinese – flags.
That’s the growing difference between Australia and New Zealand.