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"You shouldn't have to choose between a very profitable trading relationship with China and a strong political, military, security relationship with the US," says John Pomfret, author, journalist and specialist in US/China relations.

"If America puts you in a position of having to choose, that would be as much to their detriment as to New Zealand's detriment."

Pomfret, a fluent Mandarin speaker, has been reporting on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.


A Washington Post correspondent for more than 20 years - including six as Beijing bureau chief - he was in New Zealand this week to speak at the Institute of Directors' annual leadership conference.

Unfortunately for New Zealand, the US has hardened its attitude to China's expansion in the past few years, he says.

But while Pomfret agrees that puts us in a difficult position, he believes we should be able to navigate our way through if we are true to ourselves.

"In the US, both in terms of public opinion but also in the case of elite policy making opinion, you see a significant shift against China," he says.

"In US public opinion from 2012 for the first time in decades (apart from around the 1989 crackdown) you saw negative feeling [towards China] higher than favourable feelings in public opinion."

Some of that is understandable given Beijing's shift to more authoritarian rule, he says, although matters haven't been helped by US foreign policy under Donald Trump's administration.

"Among the elite, in Washington policy making circles you are seeing a push away from China in a sense that America's hopes that China was going to evolve into a more pluralistic – not necessarily democratic – but a more open society, embracing the principles of liberal free-trade economies, that dream has been shattered."

That thinking has now been manifested in the "often confusing and sometimes self-defeating" trade-war stance the US has taken.

"Trump likes tariffs. He just does. Despite the fact that it seems to be voodoo economics, he likes the tariffs and so pulling them away from China is going to be very difficult for him to do.

John Pomfret, former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief. Photo / File
John Pomfret, former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief. Photo / File

"He believes they are working. Even though his advisers know that they're not."

Pomfret says the big problem in the past couple of years has been Trump's inability to work with his international allies

"The reality is that the only way to deal with China is with a united front of like-minded developed counties that embrace the principles of democracy," he says.

"[Trump] has worked against himself by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which was probably America's worst own goal in decades."

The Washington administration has been quietly working with countries like Canada, Germany, France, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to try to come to terms with Chinese ambitions and modify its behaviour, Pomfret says.

"Although it is challenged because Trump's so good at irritating so many world leaders."

The heightened tensions do create problems for nations like New Zealand, but we're not alone in this, he says.

Issues such as the diplomatic conflict over Chinese phone company Huawei have put the heat on Chinese relations with several countries this year, including Canada, the UK and New Zealand.

That US stance is that Huawei has direct links to the Chinese Government in Beijing, making its involvement in core network builds a security risk. It's a stance that both the company and the Chinese Government deny.

Nevertheless, New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau has identified a risk which has seen Huawei excluded - for now - from the tender process for New Zealand's 5G network.

"Luckily I'm not a policy maker in New Zealand or the US. But that problem of being caught in the middle is something you see not just in NZ but in Europe as well."

The Europeans, however, have the luxury of their own trading bloc, which they can try to turn into a stronger counterweight to American bullying or Chinese dominance, he says.

"Countries like New Zealand don't have that luxury. But because you are part of the Five Eyes [security network] you do have some input to the US system and can make arguments on behalf of your country."

The issue is how can the US – working with New Zealand, Australia, Japan and other countries - come to a happy medium, he says.

It is a huge issue given the more authoritarian direction the Chinese political system is taking under President Xi Jinping.

"As an individual – like you – I don't care whether Huawei runs my phone or not," Pomfret says.

But nor does he buy the official Chinese line on Huawei's political independence.

"This is a firm that was started by a PLA [People's Liberation Army] officer. It is deeply embedded in the Chinese political structure."

That said, he thinks we are worrying too much about the issue.

"In the West we spend too much time worrying about how the Chinese will react to things and not enough time worrying about what's in our interests," he says.

"The Chinese are grown-ups and to pretend that they don't understand the reality of allowing Huawei to build the core of your 5G network is silly."

Thinking that blocking them will ruin our relationship with Beijing just plays directly into China's interests, he says.

"The fear of Chinese reaction to something is something the Chinese have manipulated for years and I think we need to get away from that and embrace more decisions which are in the interest of New Zealand."

Pomfret thinks we got the Huawei call right.

"This is not banning Chinese investment and it's not blocking Huawei from participation. It's just saying Huawei can't be involved in the core 5G build. I think that was a completely rational decision. And I think the Chinese understand that."

We shouldn't try to ignore our historic relationship with the US when we talk to the Chinese, says Pomfret.

The best approach is to be honest, he says. The message should be that New Zealand makes these decisions because it has a long term and robust alliance with the US.

"We are friends with this country, they support us and we support them despite the difficulties with the current leadership.

"And the Chinese actually respect that. It's when you violate those kinds of principles that the Chinese lose respect."

You have to maintain your stance and be consistent, he says.

"It's when you become – as the Australians say – a little wet, then they start to believe they can take advantage of you. I think that's more dangerous because it creates – on their side – expectations for you to do things that ultimately, when push comes to shove, you will not do."

Full interview with US/China relations specialist John Pomfret.

John Pomfret:

US journalist John Pomfret has been covering China since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, he has been a Washington Post correspondent for more than 20 years. He was the Post's Beijing bureau chief from 1997 to 2003.

He is the author of two books on China: Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China and The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present