When he was asked last week what it was like to receive a formal welcome with a brass band and Peoples Liberation Army guard of honour at the marble-floored Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins responded by talking about the building.
Similarly, his reaction to meeting President Xi Jinping was guarded.
And he resisted responding in kind to Xi’s claim that New Zealand was a “friend and partner.”
The formal welcome at the Grand Hall of the People was almost step-for-step and note-for-note identical to that for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2019 – and for three other Prime Ministers from Viet Nam, Mongolia and Barbados also in Beijing last week.
Nevertheless, hearing “God Defend New Zealand” ring out in the grandeur of the Great Hall with the New Zealand Prime Minister standing on a dais alongside his Chinese counterpart can be spine-tingling stuff.
The night before, Hipkins had been to the Great Hall for his meeting with President Xi Jinping, arguably the second most powerful and important leader in the world.
So on reflection, how significant did he find this experience?
“Look, it’s a pretty imposing building, and it’s obviously an incredible opportunity to go and to visit and to take part in an event like that,” he replied.
“There’s a lot of ceremony that goes with it.
“Yes, that’s a big thing for a boy from the Hutt to be part of.
“But it’s also, I think, a great opportunity to be able to represent New Zealand and to be able to do something that I think is of significance to the day-to-day lives of New Zealanders.
“Our trading relationship with China has a material impact on our standard of living as a country.”
That is obviously clever domestic politics, but it also reflects, as does his other responses to questions about China, a very extreme caution.
At first, on the trip last week, it seemed this might have stemmed from Hipkins’ own natural “aw-shucks” modesty but the more it was repeated, it seemed that the caution might have its origins in a very carefully calculated response from New Zealand to China’s effusive welcome.
That perhaps springs from the way the two countries look at the relationship.
For New Zealand, it is primarily an economic and trade relationship; for China, it is as much a political relationship.
Professor Xu Xiushiu is Head of the Division of International Politics Theory at the Institute of World Economic
The Academy is the Chinese Government think tank providing advice on foreign policy to the government.
The Professor has made several trips to New Zealand and will return to Victori University’s Contemporary China Research Centre later this year for a short visit.
He offers a rare insight into the official Chinese view of the New Zealand-China relationship.
POLITIK was invited to meet Professor Xu by the Chinese Embassy in Wellington.
His view is that China’s foreign relations are grounded in what the country calls “The Great Rejuvenation”, which was an over-arching policy launched by President Xi Jinping in 2012 and, at its most basic, aims to restore China to the levels of internal prosperity and external influence that it had before its humiliation by the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The great rejuvenation means the rise of China’s civilization,” he told POLITIK.
“China has a very long history, and China was the most powerful country for a very long time in that history.”
He said “rejuvenation” did not just apply to economic development.
“Ten years ago, President Xi Jinping offered to construct a shared future for humankind.
“So you can see that China’s China foreign policy if viewed from this perspective, you can have a better understanding that the core goal of China’s foreign policy is to maintain the world’s peace and to promote the common development of the whole world.
“So, I think that the rejuvenation is a very comprehensive development and includes the material field and culture and values and institutions.”
As New Zealand’s lead trade negotiator when China joined the World Trade Organization and later as the Key Government’s Trade Minister, Tim Groser made over 50 trips to China, a country he first visited in 1972 as part of a student delegation.
He believes that there is a strong personal element in President Xi Jinping’s “Great Rejuvenation.”
In 2014 when the President visited New Zealand, Groser escorted him around.
When he called at his hotel to pick him up one morning, unprompted, Xi told him how his father, a deputy Premier, had been persecuted and purged during the Cultural Revolution and how he himself spent his teenage years living in a cave.
“He told me the story quite dispassionately without emotion,” said Groser.
“And I thought to myself, it’s amazing that you would say this to a foreigner straight up just because, by chance, I was in China at the same time as a young man.
“This must be central to your whole thought process.”
Groser also believes that the impact of the Cultural Revolution’s disorder on Xi and his family has been a major influence in driving not just a rejuvenation of Chinese society and standing in the world but also his abhorrence of disorder and, therefore, his insistence on a strong leadership centred on him.
So when Professor Xu talks about recapturing an era when China was the most powerful country in the world, that inevitably raises questions about what is now quite clearly a strategic competition for power between the United States and China.
However, Xu, the theoretician, does not see that competition in what international relations scholars might call “realistic” terms; that is that it is not simply a security issue about military forces and borders.
“China is very different to the United States in culture and civilization,” he said.
“China has a market economy, and in the fields of trade investment and financial cooperation, maybe in these areas, China’s behaviour is very similar to the United States, but in terms of culture and civilization, it is very different.
Consequently, Xu believes that United States foreign policy is very transactional, whereas China has deeper and longer-term goals.
Ironically, that reflects the way the Chinese like to do business by establishing a personal relationship first before they do any deals.
“For China, it’s a kind of relational foreign relations,” Xu said.
“If we have had good relations in the past, our relationship will be better in the future.
“For our country with a long history, I think you see that is core to understanding China’s foreign policy.”
In some ways, this explains the unusually close relationship between New Zealand and China.
New Zealand has a bipartisan policy of respecting China in public and keeping any substantial criticisms it might have for private meetings.
At the same time, New Zealand has been supportive of China in international forums.
It was an early joiner of both the Belt and Road initiative and China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Development Bank, helping draft a constitution for the bank that gave European states the confidence to join.
China, in turn, is widely believed to have supported New Zealand’s candidacy for the United Nations Security Council, and, of course, President Xi described New Zealand as a “friend and partner” during Chris Hipkins’s meeting with him in Beijing last week.
But there is more to China’s pro-New Zealand stance than that.
“I think the most characteristic of New Zealand’s foreign policy foreign is strategic independence,” said Xu.
“It’s very important for the relations between our two sides.
“New Zealand decides its foreign policy based on its own interests.
“China and NZ have many common interests in many areas, especially. The two countries’ economies are very complementary, and this is the most important foundation.”
The Communist Party of China newspaper, “China Daily”, put the state of the relationship a little more bluntly in an editorial marking Hipkins’ visit.
“By demonstrating its willingness to carry forward the friendly and cooperative relations that it has forged with China, New Zealand is setting a good example for other developed countries, some of which follow the US lead without giving a thought to why they are doing so and whether it is the right thing to do.”
Groser believes that our “independent” foreign policy is at the heart of this.
However, he also thinks that the term “independent” is widely misunderstood in New Zealand when it is applied to foreign policy.
It is not a synonym for neutrality, he said.
“ What it means is that we will make our own decisions, but given our culture and background, 95% of the time when we actually look at any big picture issue, we will come down on the side of the conventional west; five per cent e might not.
Therefore we will not buy into the US-EU proposal to “decouple” their industries from China.
It was a major topic of discussion on the panel that Hipkins participated in at the World Economic Forum, and the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, warned them of the potential global GDP loss through decoupling and fragmentation.
“If we decouple into two trading blocks, it will cost the world a 5 per cent loss in global GDP in the longer term,” she said.
“That’s like saying that we lose the equivalent of the whole economy of Japan, which will be catastrophic for the world.
“So, decoupling and fragmentation is something that the world simply cannot afford to have.”
Nevertheless, the pressure will surely go on New Zealand to join what are really sanctions on China by another name.
But we have shown we can resist the Western consensus when it comes to China, as Hipkins has done with his firm opposition to New Zealand joining the AUKUS submarine project.
The stakes are huge. Around 32 per cent of all of our exports go to China, and judging by the enthusiasm on last week’s trade mission from exporters as diverse as Zespri and Weta Wiorkshiops, New Zealand business does not believe it has reached its limit in China yet.
Last week’s trade mission included a high-profile Maori component, led by the presence of the Te Whanau, an Apanui Kapa Haka group.
Xu believes that Maori presence is important.
He said on his visits he felt New Zealanders were kind to Chinese people and that the country had a very inclusive culture, and he admired the Government’s attitude to Maori.
For all that, the size difference between China and New Zealand is massive, our five million against their 1.4 billion; in other words, one New Zealander for every 280 Chinese.
Tim Groser has pondered this and believes that when your country has 1.4 billion people, it doesn’t matter in foreign policy terms whether you are talking to a country with 20 million people or only five.
In the large country’s eyes, both are small.
Yet, for all the red carpet, effusive language and glowing newspaper editorials last week in Beijing, these are dangerous times. It would be easy for the New Zealand – China relationship to break down.
Xu said there was a basic threat that could cause that, and that would be if New Zealand challenged Chinese sovereignty, particularly over Taiwan.
That is consistent with the whole rejuvenation policy; the restoration of China’s mana in the world requires the restoration of its historical borders.
The last Chinese dynasty before the country became subject to foreign control was the Qing dynasty which ruled Taiwan until 1895.
In China now, everything under Xi is back to Qing to go to the future. That is why the Taiwanese issue is so important and why Xu says it is a defining issue.
And that is why those business people in Beijing last week need to keep an eye on the political situation as well as their sales charts.