Chinese Premier Li Qiang arrives in Wellington today for a three-day visit to the country. The visit will take place amid uncertainty about the future of the New Zealand-China relationship.

Li hosted a formal welcome and then lunch for then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in Beijing a year ago.

The pair were entertained during the meal by the Peoples Liberation Army military band, which played a selection of songs, including “Po Kare Kare Ana,” “Tutira Mai Nga Iwi,” “The Best Future,” and “The Little Girl Who Picks Mushrooms.”

While Hipkins was in Beijing, Li, speaking at an economic forum, said “unilateralism, protectionism and de-globalization” were on the rise, a clear swipe at the growing protectionism in the United States.

Hipkins subtly endorsed that view, calling on countries to look outward rather than inward.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is much more transactional in his approach to international affairs. Previewing Li’s visit on Monday, Luxon said it would be a great opportunity for a number of New Zealand businesses to actually make arrangements and deals with their China counterparts.

His emphasis on trade is understandable; New Zealand is one of only 31 countries that has a trade surplus with China but to talk soley about trade ignores the political context within which the visit will take place.

Premier Li Keqiang inspecting a guard of honour at Government House during his visit here in 2017

Li’s predecessor (Li Keqiang) was here in 2017 and was greeted by Prime Minister Bill English, saying that the visit was an important opportunity to set the agenda for the next stage of our strong relationship and demonstrate our shared commitment to open trade and economic growth.

English signed up for China’s Belt and Road project during the visit, but any progress on that stalled once Winston Peters became foreign minister in the Ardern government the following year.

Since then, New Zealand has gradually changed its rhetoric on a number of issues to more closely align with the United States, Japan, and Australia, which all maintain a more confrontational stance towards China.

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The change obviously worries the Chinese, and a spokesperson for their Embassy in March after New Zealand had put its name to a Five Eyes complaint about Chinese cyber hacking said somewhat ominously: “We hope the New Zealand side can practice the letter and spirit of its longstanding and proud independent foreign policy, independently making judgments and decisions in its best interests rather than blindly following other’s words and actions at the expense of New Zealand’s own credibility and interests.

“We hope the New Zealand side can work in the same direction with us to properly handle our differences through constructive dialogues and communication instead of megaphone diplomacy, so we can continuously promote the healthy and stable development of our bilateral relations and create more benefits for the two countries, particularly the two peoples,” the spokesperson said.

From 1985 until 2017, what was effectively a non-aligned foreign policy is now increasingly looking like an aligned one.

Defence Minister Judith Collins, speaking at the Shangrila Defence Dialogue in Singapore last month, said: “New Zealand also welcomes AUKUS as an initiative to enhance regional security and stability.

“Pillar II involves cooperation between some of our closest security partners on advanced, non-nuclear technologies, including areas in which we already work closely together with our only ally Australia, the US and the UK.

“New Zealand is investigating opportunities for New Zealand’s potential involvement in AUKUS Pillar II, but any decisions about participation would be a matter for cabinet and the existing members in due course.”

It is expected that Li will raise AUKUS in his discussions with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon.

POLITIK Chinese Ambassador Wang Xialong

Speaking in May at the China Business Summit, China’s Ambassador in Wellington, Wang Xiaolong, addressed the changing rhetoric from New Zealand.

“Currently, there are voices both in and outside New Zealand framing the so-called China Threat Theory, attempting to persuade New Zealand to perceive China as a threat,” he said.

“But the truth is, there are neither historical grievances nor fundamental conflicts in interest between our two countries.

“The fact that our commonality far outweighs our differences remains unchanged.”

However he said China had serious concerns about AUKUS as it threatened to start a regional arms race and lead to escalating tensions.

Referring to recent comments from US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, saying the AUKUS submarines would be used in any Taiwan Strait hostilities, Xiaolong said Campbell had confirmed that AUKUS was a nuclear-based military-nature alliance “clearly and unabashedly designed to maintain US hegemony and contain other countries’ development.”

“The sole purpose of its “second pillar” is to serve and support nuclear-related military cooperation under the “first pillar”, rather than being an innocent platform for technology sharing,” he said.

“Many people in New Zealand and beyond believe that joining such an alliance in whatever form is taking sides.”

He also made it clear that bilateral relations would suffer if New Zealand joined Pillar Two.

“We hope and trust that New Zealand will eventually make its decision taking fully into account its own long-term fundamental interests as well as the imperative to promote the healthy and stable development of our bilateral relations and to preserve the hard-won peace in the region and the world,” he said.

Beijing appears to be optimistic about Li’s visit.

Speaking on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson, Lin Jian, said  China and New Zealand were each other’s important cooperation partners.

“Since China and New Zealand established diplomatic ties, our two countries have sustained sound and steady growth of bilateral relations and created many firsts,” he said.

“Cooperation in various fields has delivered enormous benefits to the two countries and the two peoples.

“During his visit to New Zealand, Premier Li Qiang will have meetings and talks with Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon for an in-depth exchange of views on the China-New Zealand relationship and international and regional issues of mutual interest.

“China hopes that through this visit, the two countries will strengthen communication, enhance mutual trust, deepen cooperation, cement friendship and promote sound and steady growth of China-New Zealand relationship for more benefits of the two peoples.”

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