At Davos, Xi Jinping warned Joe Biden he risks a new cold war if he does not abandon Trumpian protectionist policies.
The Chinese president renewed his call for a multilateral approach to solving the international economic crises sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Xi said the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to reverse globalisation in favour of "decoupling and seclusion".
"To build small circles or start a new cold war, to reject, threaten or intimidate others, to wilfully impose decoupling, supply disruption or sanctions, and to create isolation or estrangement will only push the world into division and even confrontation," Xi said.
Back here, New Zealand finally inked a long ago negotiated upgrade to a bilateral free trade agreement which had sat on desks in the respective offices of NZ's Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (Mfat) and China's Ministry of Commerce (Mofcom) waiting signatures since November 2019.
The timing was hardly coincidental. "The upgrade shows the two sides' firm determination to support multilateralism and free trade," said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman of China's foreign ministry.
At the virtual signing, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said from Beijing the deal was "another milestone" in co-operation between the countries.
"I'll be more than happy to maintain working relations with you; jointly break new ground in trade and economic relations between China and New Zealand," Wang told Trade Minister Damien O'Connor, who was in Wellington.
Australian media were quick to differentiate China's treatment of New Zealand from that of Australia.
The Xi messaging hit a deaf note there given China's campaign of economic coercion against a country whose GDP is a fraction of the rapidly emerging super power.
Much of the NZ domestic focus has been on the gains from the upgrade: Reductions in tariffs for wood products; a final deadline for the abolition of China's safeguards on milk powder – a comparative win over Australia where similar safeguards are embedded in its own FTA with China and a boost to the dairy sector; services liberalisation and a long-overdue updating of the FTA with chapters on competition, e-commerce and the environment where both nations usefully commit not to use climate change concerns to impose protectionist measure on each other.
This is to some extent old news.
The more interesting element is the strategic overlay spelled out in the National Interest Analysis which looks to the upside (and downsides) from the deal.
It paints the FTA upgrade as a very useful step at a time when the international system is currently facing significant threats amid a global environment of rising protectionism.
The analysis says New Zealand remains committed to working with others, including China, to retain and revitalise the WTO system. In conjunction with this, developing a stronger, more coherent and modernised network of free trade agreements remains an important priority.
Against this backdrop, the timing of the FTA upgrade is significant. "It contributes to the objective of expanding and refreshing our FTA network, and underlines the importance of New Zealand and China continuing to work together to strengthen the trade architecture that underpins the international system. It also sends a strong statement of New Zealand and China's continued commitment to the rules-based international trading system.
"In the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic, this takes on even greater significance as these rules will be more important than ever in assisting with the global economic recovery."
There is more besides.
While Xi was careful at the Davos forum not to single out Biden by name, it is obvious that the trade tensions between China and the US did not begin with the former president's inauguration. US business was fed-up with a "system" where China demanded technology transfer as the door to its vast consumer market and manufacturing prowess. The Trump Administration's escalating tariffs on Chinese goods and other commercial sanctions deepened the stand-off.
But to a considerable extent, China has already conformed with many of the prior US Administration's demands.
The Biden Administration is not about to execute a swift volte-face. It will take time for its China strategy to evolve. But it will reengage with the World Trade Organisation and it will expect the WTO to ensure that China (also) honours its commitments and from China's perspective this is a good thing as it moves some of the hard bargaining to a more neutral arena.
It is a given that the decoupling Xi speaks of is already under way. The Biden Administration is preparing to promote a Buy America agenda (as to some degree is happening in NZ where in the wake of the pandemic there is renewed questioning of having the bulk of manufacturing offshore).
But the Administration's focus will inevitably be domestic in the short run.
Developing an expansionist trade agenda over time will support the US economic recovery and also New Zealand's.