COMMENT:

If students occupied Tiananmen Square in 2019, Xi Jinping would be no slower to kill them than Deng Xiaoping in 1989.

The Chinese regime's very strength makes it brittle and the realpolitik that drove the "June Fourth Incident" 30 years ago remains.

The US establishment could regard students occupying The Mall as kids being kids and wait them out.

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For Zhongnanhai's residents, such lenience would undermine the regime's self-fulfilling illusion of omnipotence.

Moreover, a successful uprising in Beijing would almost certainly plunge China into civil war.

Even a sudden move to Western-style democracy in a culturally, ethnically and economically disparate nuclear-armed empire of 1.4 billion people with no tradition of it would be extremely dangerous.

Dealing with China's leaders, New Zealand must remember their true nature.

They are neither the benign reforming globalists some on our right assume, nor the union comrades some on the left want to believe.

China is a military dictatorship where free-market capitalism is a mere tool to drive up living standards to prevent unrest. If anything, political liberalisation is being reversed.

Like all great powers, it is only rational for China to seek military, economic and cultural hegemony over its region and ultimately the world to assure its own security. It seeks to encircle its rivals or at least ensure it competes with them far from its own borders.

Over 25 years, New Zealand diplomats and leaders have skilfully maximised the economic gains from China's rise while restoring normal military ties with the US.

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We earn our living from the world's fastest-growing economy but with a re-established de facto security guarantee from the world's greatest military power.

This creates an obvious tension. Our best strategy is to avoid taking sides whenever possible.

In practice, this means supporting a multilateral rules-based system. We defer to the UN Security Council on geopolitics and to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on economics.

It is never in our interests to sit on the Security Council and risk being forced daily to vote with one great power over the other.

As seen again from this week's Apec debacle, Washington's current political situation means New Zealand's over-riding interest in the rules-based system is temporarily more aligned with Beijing than with the founder of the great post-World War II institutions.

Only under a renegade US Administration could the Communist Party of China be a better advocate than the White House for maintaining the integrity of the WTO and its all-important disputes settlement process. Nevertheless, there will surely be a correction in 2020 or 2024.

In contrast, there is no possibility of a correction in China's hegemonic ambitions.
Just as it did with the "Four Firsts", New Zealand should act in our interests but without being naive and thinking China does not act entirely in its own.

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not some generous aid programme but an attempt to gain decisive economic and ultimately military control over the recipients.

Already it has encircled India and stretched China's influence over Central Asia, Southeast Asia and North Africa.

It should be causing much greater alarm in Wellington that Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Niue and the Cook Islands have all signed up. China's arc of influence across the South Pacific is now bigger than Britain's in the 19th Century or Japan's in the 1940s. A military presence will inevitably follow.

If China offers BRI to help New Zealand build a new port and rail network linking Whangārei, Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, we should be cautious.

We should also get to the bottom of recent goings-on in Christchurch, revealed again by the Herald's Matt Nippert this week. China denies any involvement.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refuses to discuss the relationship with China with the Herald, despite repeated requests since May. Her planned trip to China has also been deferred.

This could reflect doubts that Ardern could competently address such issues with the Herald or in Beijing, or it may be merely prudent.

There is little doubt where New Zealand's long-term interests lie.

The US is far from perfect. Slavery, isolationism in the face of the rise of Hitler, apartheid in the South and Trumpism today are among its historic disgraces.

But the US is the longest continuous liberal democracy in history. Of all great powers, it has perhaps been the most restrained, certainly in terms of its interaction with the South Pacific.

New Zealand should be in no doubt, if it ever came to it, which side we would be on. But perhaps it is best for the Prime Minister not to say so out loud.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.