COMMENT:

It wasn't the fact that Jacinda Ardern did not seal a visit to China in her first year as Prime Minister that raises questions about the state of New Zealand's relationship with the rising superpower.

It is the way she was treated by China, left dangling, not knowing through most of November whether or not the nod would come for an end-of-year visit.

A "no" would have sufficed, with a commitment to do it next year. A trip had been on the cards for October but she was understandably shuffled aside by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Advertisement

That the New Zealand Prime Minister was left hanging for so long may well have been due to a misunderstanding.

But National leader Simon Bridges has seized on it as a snub and a sign of a deteriorating relationship.

And not without cause: almost everything China does is deliberate and that is the lens through which it sees others.

If the bilateral relationship has not undergone a downgrade in the past year, both sides have given a fair impression that that is what is happening.

It started from a reasonably high mark. The new Government inherited a surprisingly good relationship with China, developed by National during complex times for both countries.

China was undergoing a change in leadership and strategic direction from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, who is more assertive about displays of economic and military strength.

The 2008 to 2017 years were the first time that a National Government had embraced and fully exercised an independent foreign policy, after the anti-nuclear rift.

The Helen Clark Government left the best conditions possible for that to happen by getting the United States in 2007 to privately renounce its policy to overturn New Zealand's anti-nuclear laws and, in 2008, sealing the deal on a free trade agreement with China.

For National, it meant a fresh start with the United States under Barack Obama and a headstart with China.

John Key's first major bilateral visit as Prime Minister was to China in April 2009 just a few months after taking office.

By the time Ardern came to office last year, the previous Government had launched talks with China for an upgrade of the free trade agreement, backed the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, signed up to a memorandum of understanding on China's Belt and Road Initiative and was avoiding the type of slanging matches that Australia and the United States were having with China.

New Zealand had found its own voice in dealing with China in the Pacific and the South China Sea which was more moderate than Australia or the United States - the latter of which lifted anti-China sentiment to new levels in a speech by Vice-President Mike Pence in October.

Managing both relationships well, China and the US, had become a hallmark of New Zealand's independent foreign policy.

But in one year, Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters have changed that. There appears to be a deliberate but unstated goal of the Government to loosen its embrace of China and strengthen its ties with its former Anzus partners, Australia and the United States, in their effort to compete with China in the Pacific.

It has framed New Zealand's Pacific "Reset" in terms of a response to the rivalry in the Pacific, it explicitly criticised China's military buildup in the South China Seas in a formal Defence strategic policy document, and it has raised doubts over the Belt and Road Initiative – a nebulous concept that can mean anything to any country in terms of engagement with China but is hugely important to China.

New Zealand has also welcomed Australia's massive plans announced in October for military engagement and infrastructure spending in the Pacific - a bid to prevent China from establishing a naval base in the Pacific.

The decision by the GCSB effectively ruling out Huawei's involvement in Spark's 5G plan adds salt to the wound.

It should not be seen in the same context as the other recent irritants in the relationship which were based on political decisions, but that will not stop China seeing the Huawei decision as political.

The director-general of the GCSB, Andrew Hampton, is as straight as they come for a modern-day public servant. He has worked in senior roles in the Office of Treaty Settlements, Courts, Education and the State Services Commission.

He would not make a decision for political purposes or avoid making a decision to preserve a relationship.

That is not to say he has not been influenced. He said publicly he had not been pressured by Five Eyes intelligence partners.

But reading between the lines of the agency's own fact sheets, the Huawei decision has clearly been based on other agencies' classified intelligence reports of threats to security networks.

The Australian newspaper a month ago cited an Australian security source for a story saying Chinese intelligence had sought password and network details from Huawei to hack a foreign network.

Under the National Intelligence Law passed by China last year, any organisation or citizen can be required to assist with state intelligence work.

New Zealand's acceptance of Huawei, contrary to policies of US and Australia, was bolstered by the fact that Britain had also accepted Huawei for 4G.

But the Cell, an evaluation unit set up to specifically monitor Huawei, in its latest fourth report said it could offer "only limited assurance" that it posed no threat to national security. Its previous three reports said any risks could be mitigated.

Peters and GCSB minister Andrew Little have been quick to point out that the GCSB decision is the start of a process and not the end of one. The decision can be reviewed by the Chief Commissioner of Security Warrants.

The final decision rests with Little himself, who is able to take into account political considerations such as foreign relationships.

But so long as that law in China remains, it is difficult to see how the risk to network security could be mitigated by anything Huawei or any other Chinese telco could say or do and how Little could ignore that.

The Huawei decision may delay Ardern's invitation to Beijing but at least when she does get it, there will be plenty to talk about.