Tensions in the relationship with China appeared to subside yesterday with the news that China’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Luo Shugang, would travel to Wellington later this month to open the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.
The announcement follows what appears to be a Government move to delay any final decision on Huawei’s participation in Spark’s 5G network.
Luo is a key Chinese political figure and has often undertaken visits as a special envoy on behalf of President Li Jinping.
In November last year, he headed a Chinese mission to North Korea.
He will be the most senior Chinese political figure to visit New Zealand since Premier Li Keqiang in March 2017.
His visit to Wellington follows the cancellation of the planned opening of the Tourism year on February 20; a move that was interpreted in Chinese media as retaliation over New Zealand’s refusal to approve Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G mobile phone programme.
The Prime Minister yesterday was careful to say that the reason for the “postponement” of the opening was simply a “scheduling issue”.
“It’s obviously fantastic to now have that resolved,” she told her weekly press conference.
But Chinese media have continued to link the original postponement to the Huawei decision.
As recently s Sunday, the “Global Times”, a semi-official news website quoted Liu Qing, director of the department for Asia-Pacific security and cooperation of the China Institute of International Studies.
He said: “Like New Zealand, which has previously been affected by its decision not to allow Huawei to provide 5G technology, Australian tourism is also likely to suffer from its political decision. (to ban Huawei)
“China postponed the launch of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism in February. Bilateral relations have soured since last November. New Zealand, following the US-geopolitical campaign in cracking down on China’s Huawei – the largest telecoms equipment provider — barred the company from building a 5G local network, citing security concerns. “
But POLITIK understands that the Government has been able to “park” the Huawei issue and effectively postpone any final decision on the participation of the company in Spark’s 5G network.
The Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Kris Faafoi has said that the Government must now work with Maori to resolve Treaty issues related to allocation of the 3.5GZ spectrum that will be allocated to the phone companies for their 5G networks.
Faafoi was unwilling last night to put any timetable on when these issues might be resolved.
The Minister will be conscious of a series of Waitangi Tribunal rulings starting with a seminal ruling in 1990 that the spectrum was a taonga to be shared by the tribes “and by all mankind.”
“Neither of the Treaty partners can have monopoly rights to this resource.”
And in 1999 the Tribunal ruled that in its allocation of 3G frequencies, the Crown must: “Suspend the auction of . . . frequencies until . . . it has negotiated with Maori to reserve a fair and equitable portion of the frequencies for Maori . . . Such an arrangement is preferable to some form of compensation by the Crown in lieu of spectrum frequencies.
“Maori must have hands-on ownership and management if they are to foot it in the ‘knowledge economy.”
With that as the baseline for talks with iwi over 5G, an early resolution would seem unlikely.
Faafoi told POLITIK last night that talks with Maori had begun.
But he said — and this may be important — that it was “impossible” to say how long they might take.
So when will the spectrum be put up for auction for companies like Spark?.
“National rights to this portion of the spectrum are expected to be auctioned early in 2020, however given the complexity of work underway this is an indicative date.”
In short, the Government have bought themselves some time to try and find a resolution to the Huawei issue.
There is no secret around the Beehive that there is some frustration with Spark CEO, Simon Moutter, and what is said to be his pushing of the 5G issue.
Ministers would prefer that a matter as delicately balanced as it is, be able to be resolved in private rather than through press statements and billboards.
There are also other signals that the Government is adopting a different tack in its relationship with China.
Its decision to send Trade Minister David Parker to .Beijing in April for the second Belt and Road Forum would seem to be a departure from the statements of Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, who has refused to endorse New Zealand’s participation in the Belt and Road.
Peters has been notably silent on the China relationship in recent weeks.
All this does not mean the position of the intelligence agencies or close allies like Australia, that Huawei is a threat, has gone away.
But the Government appears to have bought itself time to try and find a way through the situation.