Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's hand is firmly on the rudder when it comes to steering New Zealand's foreign policy with China.

"Of course we have multiple players who play an incredibly important role in our foreign policy," she told the China Business Summit this week.

"You will hear from our Minister for Trade and Export Growth just how critical his role is and, of course, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade but ultimately the convention has been and always will be that the Prime Minister is the office that ultimately leads foreign policy direction in any government."


Ardern's defining "who's in charge" statement came during a Q&A session with me at the China Business Summit — which I co-chair — in Auckland on Monday.

Her message that the New Zealand-China relationship is dynamic and her own nudge to China: "Don't define us by the bumps on the road, but define us by the things that we have achieved", was apposite.

The most notable potential "bump" in the relationship is, in fact, Spark's proposal to use Huawei in its 5G upgrade which will pave the way for NZ's largest telco to play a defining role in the development of the Internet of Things in New Zealand.

The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) reckons that would pose a national security threat.

Huawei New Zealand deputy CEO Andrew Bowater outlined how the Chinese telco supplier proposed to move to mitigate GCSB concerns saying the "core" componentry would, in fact, be provided by Cisco.

Bowater said Huawei felt blindsided by the GCSB's determination, saying that previously it had enjoyed a good working relationship.

The GCSB's refusal is currently under review and Bowater signalled he wants to talk with the GCSB's minister Andrew Little about the issue.

There's a danger the Huawei issue could become more than a
There's a danger the Huawei issue could become more than a "bump" in the road. Photo / AP

Earlier in her prime ministership it had appeared as if the coalition's junior partner, New Zealand First, was making all the play when it came to driving relationships with two of New Zealand's key relationships — China and the United States.

That's not to say the concerns raised by NZ First leader Winston Peters — who is also Ardern's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister — were not genuine.

Concerns around China's role in the Pacific and its position on the South China Sea, not to mention debt diplomacy when it comes to some Belt and Road infrastructure projects, are just some of those.

For Ardern — who had been dubbed the "anti-Trump" even by former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark — having Peters forge strong ties with key US players like Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also been invaluable.

But her failure to take an early and clear leadership role undermined her positioning with China — particularly when China was confused by the coalition's new found assertiveness.

As Chinese ambassador Wu Xi said in February, in her own nudge to the Prime Minister, "when sailing through uncharted waters it is vitally important to firmly hold the
rudder carefully steering through the rocks".

Monday's performance — while anodyne to some — would have ticked all the boxes with China.

It came at a time when Chinese negotiators were meeting with their New Zealand counterparts in Wellington for the next round of talks on the upgrade of the bilateral free trade deal between New Zealand and China.

The readout from the PM's recent visit to Beijing was so positive that Wu hinted it would not be too long before there is another "first" in the relationship.

But ensuring the Huawei "bump" does not morph into the kind of "rock in the road" that the anti-nuclear policy became in New Zealand's relationship with the United States will require careful diplomacy.

Ironically, Peters' own diplomacy played a large role in restoring that relationship.

Said Wu: "We hope that all Chinese enterprises operating in New Zealand will be treated in a fair, transparent and unbiased way."

If Huawei is permanently ruled out from taking part in the 5G platform it must be on national security grounds — not geopolitics.

- Fran O'Sullivan launched the China Business Summit in 2012 in partnership with the Auckland Business Chamber.