There are undoubtedly legitimate issues for New Zealand to consider over its relationship with China.
Economists fret that nearly a quarter of our exports go to just one market, including a third of dairy exports, 60 per cent of forestry products and 40 per cent of our meat. China also generated 20 per cent of our tourism revenues.
The great New Zealand saga of the last 75 years has been about weaning ourselves off the United Kingdom. We naturally monitor any risk of becoming as economically exposed to political decisions in Beijing as we once were to those in London.
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Relatedly, Jim Bolger's great China push leading to the historic Four Firsts was partly based on an assumption that, after the end of the Cold War and the trauma of the June Fourth Incident, China's economic and political systems would evolve like most of eastern Europe's.
In fact, under Xi Jinping, liberalisation has stalled or reversed. Policymakers will inevitably take that into account.
For their part, human rights activists think New Zealand should more assertively critique Chinese domestic affairs, including in Xinjiang and Tibet. Others think we should take more seriously allegations of infiltration of our political system, including of our two main parties.
Security theorists argue New Zealand should protect at all costs our only military alliance, that with Australia, and also our "very, very, very, close friendship" with the United States. Under no circumstances should we put at risk our membership of Five Eyes.
They contend that if Australia and the US tilt away from China, our long-term security demands we do the same.
At the very least, they suggest we keep out of the Great Powers' lane, and never more so in the midst of a global pandemic and dangerous sabre-rattling in Washington.
This seems not to be the Coalition Government's view.
In 2018, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' Georgetown address was widely interpreted, not least by Beijing, as urging the US to do more to check China in the Pacific.
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More recently, at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earned China's rebuke by singling it out for early border controls. China's ambassador to Wellington, Wu Xi, noted menacingly that "in prosperity, friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends". Still, in the context what has happened since, that should have been no more than a minor tiff.
Peters has decided otherwise.
Perhaps motivated by Donald Trump's political messaging, Peters has opted to provoke China. Last week, he deliberately revealed China had urged New Zealand not to go into lockdown. A Foreign Minister as experienced as Peters knows full well that revealing a great power made unsuccessful representations to New Zealand causes a loss of face.
This followed his public spat with Ambassador Wu over whether or not Chinese Taipei should have observer status at the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Chinese Taipei was an observer at the WHO from 2009 until 2016 and New Zealand's position is that it should be again. Given its apparent success in managing Covid-19, that case is arguably even stronger.
But nothing New Zealand has to say on this matter – or indeed any other – makes a blind bit of difference right now. If we and others were going to make a fuss about the WHO, the time was four years ago.
In any case, Peters went much further than merely restating New Zealand's established position. Instead, he deliberately insulted Wu by saying she should "listen to her master in Beijing", Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with whom Peters thinks he has a close relationship.
Any competent diplomat would know this is like Fijian Foreign Minister Inia Seruiratu telling our High Commissioner in Suva, Jonathan Curr, to "listen to his master" back in Wellington. Inevitably, Wang backed Wu and the Chinese Foreign Ministry publicly dressed down New Zealand in the strongest terms anyone can remember.
China, it said, "opposed and deplores" New Zealand's "erroneous remarks" and "wrong actions". It urged "certain people in New Zealand" – surely code for Peters – to "stop spreading rumours and creating trouble".
Laypeople may think the "One China" policy, on which this is all based, is a load of nonsense, given how Chinese Taipei operates in the world, including with the rest of China. But, in Beijing's eyes, Chinese Taipei is like the Chatham Islands not just splitting from New Zealand but asserting that it is the true seat of the New Zealand Government, not Wellington.
Ardern may not send in the SAS to show them who's boss, instead shrugging her shoulders and playing a long game. But she certainly wouldn't be happy for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to start agreeing for it to pop up at international conferences against her wishes. When viewed through this lens, China is in fact remarkably tolerant of the "Taiwanese splitists".
Peters knows all this better than anyone. His first major diplomatic foray was in 1997, representing New Zealand as Deputy Prime Minister when China resumed its exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. His famous charm won over his hosts, and he has regularly praised the Chinese model of economic development over more laissez faire regimes such as New Zealand. Given this history, it is difficult for China to interpret his conduct as other than gratuitously offensive.
Were Peters a Labour MP, Ardern would surely have sacked him as Foreign Minister.
China – or at least its Wellington embassy – completely understands Peters' unique position under MMP, and that perhaps he is seeking the votes of recent migrants from Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei. It also knows how highly the New Zealand Foreign Ministry values the relationship with Beijing, with its biggest diplomatic footprint being in China, including a flash new embassy that has stayed fully open through the Covid-19 crisis. The ministry sends its very best diplomats to China and they continue to work with the Beijing bureaucracy as normal.
Nevertheless, even as it constantly re-evaluates aspects of the relationship, New Zealand should not take China's tolerance for granted. It is a Great Power, perhaps soon to replace Trump's US as global hegemon, and it expects to be treated accordingly. It is aware Ardern has spent just one day in China in her first term, compared with the more significant commitments of her predecessors. It has noted she has failed even to reprimand Peters, whose words it is entitled to take as those of the New Zealand state.
There is speculation Peters is in fact using such issues as provocations not so much against China but against Ardern, goading her into sacking him before the election. If so, one more gratuitous insult against China, and New Zealand's interests will demand Ardern grant him his wish.
- Disclosure: Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant and lobbyist. These views are his own.