Diplomatic semaphore is often hard for the uninitiated to read. China might not be playing partisan politics in New Zealand with a visit by National MP Mark Mitchell to Hong Kong but, since it has pointedly deferred a visit by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern indefinitely, it is being most unwise.
New Zealand's foreign policy towards China has obviously shifted slightly since the change of Government. Although Foreign Minister Winston Peters denies that our relations with China are now strained, he and Defence Minister Ron Mark have taken a notably American view of the possible threats posed by China's interests in the southwest Pacific.
Their view might not be entirely shared by the Labour and Green parties but, for better or worse, NZ First holds two portfolios that play important roles in New Zealand's foreign relations.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The National Party has been naturally quick to seize on the apparent damage to our interests in China. It no doubt sees an opportunity not just to embarrass the Government but to drive a wedge between the coalition parties. National is perfectly entitled to do that and can get political mileage from Mitchell's welcome in Hong Kong if it wants to. But for that reason, this trip is not in China's interest.
It is always counter-productive for a strong country to get involved — or even appear to get involved — in the internal politics of a weaker one. It is likely to harden public opinion against the interfering power but, even if it does not, it is not in the long-term interests of either country.
The United States well understood this after its fallout with the Lange Labour Government on nuclear defence policy. It made it clear it was not interested in coming to arrangements with the next National Government that could not survive another change of government.
China should not imagine the strains in its relationship with New Zealand would have be less if National was still in power. Donald Trump's trade war with China had barely begun before the 2017 election in New Zealand. Nor had China's ambitions been strongly felt beyond the South China Sea. It had just begin to explore the opportunities created by Trump's withdrawal of American leadership and engagement on several global fronts.
The difficulties today's US-China rivalry is creating for countries that value their trade with both and look to the US for their security would have been no less under a National Government. It is anyone's guess whether National would have over-ruled the GCSB's decision to block Huawei from supplying New Zealand's next generation broadband equipment, for example, whatever National says when it does not face these decisions.
But the difficulties the Government faces do not excuse its failure to maintain good relations with China. It is idle of Peters to pretend nothing is wrong. China's indefinite deferral of the Prime Minister's visit speaks volumes, as does its cancellation of a joint tourism promotion last week. If we have been misreading these events, China's embassy in Wellington would be saying so.
It is Peters' job to see that all our foreign relationships are well maintained and no country is needlessly antagonised. With China he now has some hard work to do.