There was a warning last night in Wellington that our relationship with China could get more difficult under President Biden.
A panel of China and Asian experts convened by Diplosphere welcomed the predictability that a Biden administration would bring to foreign policy.
But that might mean trying to strengthen alliances in the region to confront China on some issues.
That would leave New Zealand with some difficult decisions to make.
An indication of how difficult they could be is easily visible across the Tasman.
Beijing said Canberra should “reflect on its own deeds” as it began imposing a raft of punitive restrictions on imports from Australia on Friday.
Chinese importers were advised to stop importing barley, sugar, red wine, timber, coal and lobster.
Speaking last Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said China urged some in Australia “to reflect upon their deeds, do more things that are conducive to mutual trust, cooperation and the China-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, and create favourable conditions and atmosphere for bilateral practical cooperation across the board.”
The Chinese action is in direct response to a number of economic measures taken by Australia against China, including barring ten investment proposals from China and launching 106 anti-dumping cases against Chinese imports.
However, there has been a constant stream of criticism from Chinese media of Australia’s vigorous support at the political level for President Trump’s confrontational approach to China.
The message is clear and was spelled out by China’s Ambassador in Wellington, Wu Xi. There are political limits to any relationship with China.
She had been expected to appear in person at the panel discussion but instead appeared by Zoom.
Panel chair Maty Nikkhou-O’Brien said the Ambassador could not appear in person because there had been a case of community transfer of Covid-19 in New Zealand and Chinese Government policy required that she stay in the Embassy.
Experienced diplomats at the event wondered whether her virtual appearance had more to do with Chinese caution about the current situation in America.
Even so, she put a positive spin on the potential for relations with a Biden administration.
“Despite disagreements between the two countries, there are broad economic interests and a space for cooperation,” she said.
“We always believe that China and the US stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.
“Now, more than ever, China and the US need cooperation, building consensus and dialogue.”
A former American diplomat in China, Ford Hart, said he thought the new administration would place a stronger emphasis on human rights.
“We’re going to see this is a more significant issue in the new administration,” he said.
“The president will be speaking out these from the get-go.
“This is actually more in line with traditional US policy and popular demands.
“It will, however, be modulated within the overall system of priorities, as it always has been.”
Human rights concerns about China this year have been focused on the plight of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province and the ongoing tension in Hong Kong.
But Wu also repeated China’s usual warnings about non- interference in its internal affairs.
“It’s in the strong resolve of the Chinese people to defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she said. (That territorial integrity includes Hong Kong and Taiwan).
“No more should the US have the illusion to undermine China’s political system and China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
And in what appeared to be a reference to New Zealand she said the international community was like a family.
“Family members should never force others to choose sides,” she said.
This echoes what is becoming a refrain in Chinese media; that New Zealand, unlike Australia, is an independent country that is under pressure from both the US and Australia to take a more confrontational attitude to China; that it is being forced to choose.
A commentary yesterday in the Chinese Communist Party-backed “Global Times” accuses the United States, Japan, India and Australia of trying to turn their “Quad” relationship into a military alliance directed against China.
This year has seen New Zealand, Viet Nam and South Korean included in some Quad talks.
Former Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, who was personally antagonistic to China, claimed the talks were solely about Covid-19.
The “Global Times” said China should be more prepared for military struggles as a consequence of the Quad.
“When necessary, Beijing should use military abilities to defend its essential national interests, including the Taiwan question, South China Sea issue, and other rights to develop overseas,” it said.
But it suggested that China should take a positive view of New Zealand.
“China should also attach more importance to countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and ASEAN members, so as to prevent the US’ attempt from forging new military alliances.”
Whilst it would seem unlikely the Ardern Government would be interested in seeing its casual membership of the Quad turn into membership of an ANZUS-look-alike military alliance, there was a view at the panel discussion that the Biden administration would make more use of East Asian alliances to try and contain China.
The Editor of the Dominion Post and until recently the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, Anna Fifield, said President Biden would try to return to a multilateral framework.
“He would try to build coalitions and get allies to support him and move in tandem against China,” she said.
“That that is something that I think we could see more in the way of now.
“This may create a very tricky situation for New Zealand and smaller allies when it comes to things like Huawei and issues that are very sensitive for us and how we deal with them if we have a US administration that is really actively trying to build coalitions there.”
The former Reserve Bank Governor and APEC Executive Director Dr Alan Bollard said that whereas the trump administration had focused on a military presence in East Asia in its confrontation with China, he thought the Biden administration would be “warships plus diplomats.”
“There’s going to be a pretty clear messaging that will be all about rallying the allies, and that means us,” he said.
“And we’re going to have some big challenges over how to respond to that.
“New Zealand has watched the ASEANs who of course are past masters at playing off China’s economy against US security.
“They want both of it, and on the other hand, Australia has done very poorly at that.
“We are now going to quite possibly get put under some pressure.
“And we do have to remember that as the New Zealand economy has continued in reasonable shape with reasonable terms of trade, that is because, like it or not, the Chinese economy has picked up and kept commodity prices strong.
“It’s going to be a hard call for us.”
However, Hart ended the evening on an optimistic note.
“I’m a big fan of New Zealand’s China policy as I’ve observed it from the margins,” he said.
“I think the government does a really remarkably good job of balancing the challenges before it.
“And I guess that quiet messaging is highly appropriate for a small country which has a range of interests and the special vulnerabilities too.
“It’s well done.
“China does an enormous amount of good stuff in the world.
“I think we’re moving towards a more sustainable international order with the China that has returned from the dynastic collapse and civil war revolution, self-destruction over the last 42 years.
“This is inherently a good thing, but it’s a very large, long term process that will take us right through the middle of the century, if not beyond.”