COMMENT:

The Government has two major fronts to contend with as the strained relations between New Zealand and China become more apparent by the day.

First is the domestic front and how to avoid being blamed for trashing a friendship that has taken more than 40 years to build.

Second is the diplomatic front and how to get the relationship with China back on track.
That will require some political skill to navigate because when relationships are delicately poised, it is easy to make things worse.

Advertisement

This will be a great test for Jacinda Ardern to see if she has the skill to handle the ultra-sensitive behemoth and to rein in her loquacious Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, when required.

She has to do a lot better than blame National for ending the bipartisan consensus on foreign affairs, which is often honoured in the breach, as evidenced by Labour and TPP.

Were it not for the news that the Chinese Government had cancelled a gala event it was hosting in Wellington to mark the China-NZ Year of Tourism, the souring relations may have quietly fermented away as they have for months.

But on top of the Air New Zealand plane turning back mid-flight to Shanghai, it took on greater significance and prominence.

This will be a great test for Jacinda Ardern to see if she has the skill to handle the ultra-sensitive behemoth and to rein in her loquacious Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, when required.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

The airline's explanation of what happened was so sketchy that it took days for it to emerge that China had not turned the plane back and in fact had no part in the move.

Earlier this week Ardern was downplaying the problems with China, saying not much had changed. She reiterated she had an open invitation to go to China and said the last communication she had had in a meeting [presumably with Premier Li Keqiang] they had said they "continued to be ambitious around the visit".

She would not have been fooled by such platitudes, so goodness knows why she would trot it out this week and expect the public to be fooled into thinking the invitation is in the post.

Jacinda Ardern brought more realism to her statements as evidence of a strain became more obvious, referring to the challenges in the relationship. Photo / Rod Emmerson
Jacinda Ardern brought more realism to her statements as evidence of a strain became more obvious, referring to the challenges in the relationship. Photo / Rod Emmerson

Ardern brought more realism to her statements as evidence of a strain became more obvious, referring to the challenges in the relationship. Peters remained in fantasy land by describing the relationship as "excellent".

His description may have been more diplomatic than saying it has gone down the toilet, but it was about as accurate as him holding up the "No" sign when asked if he had received any donations from Owen Glenn.

The story in China's Global Times about Chinese tourists being turned off New Zealand is clearly intended to turn more Chinese tourists off New Zealand. And reports are emerging of New Zealand exporters facing handicaps at the Chinese border, despite denials by Peters.

The main cause of the retaliation is Huawei and the Government Communications Security Bureau blocking its involvement in Spark's 5G plans – a decision that could theoretically be undone by the Government.

While it is clearly the main rock in the road, the Government did not arrive in power without baggage that would have put it at a disadvantage to China compared with the close relationship built up under Helen Clark and John Key.

Chinese-sounding surnames in the Auckland housing market highlighted by Labour, the demonising of Chinese immigration and investment over many years by New Zealand First and the well-established activism of the Greens against human rights abuses in China may have created some caution at the outset.

Some in the Government are saying that its more assertive stance against China is a response to changes by China itself.

There is no question that China has become more assertive under the more authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping – as the United States has changed under Donald Trump.

The previous National Government came under repeated pressure by Australia and the United States to step up its language against China in the South China Seas but it resisted, knowing that the smallest of shift in language would be viewed as hugely significant by China.

Ivory-towered academics may see that as kowtowing rather than realpolitik. But it put a perceptible distance between New Zealand from its Five Eyes partners that was helpful in being seen to be independent.

The new Cabinet last year signed off the strategic defence policy statement with the new language that fell in behind Australia and the United States.

What is not known is to what extent officials advised the Cabinet about how important those small changes would be perceived by China but Peters immediately got into a public spat with China over it.

Ardern needs to find a better balance between two important friends than Peters has exhibited.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

The changes, which stepped up criticism of China, were complemented by what I described as Peters' love-letter to America in December, a speech in which he begged it to get more involved in our part of the world to counter the influence of China.

But going forward and with the ultimate responsibility for foreign affairs, Ardern needs to find a better balance between two important friends than Peters has exhibited.

She has already demonstrated to China her willingness to engage, having approved five ministers to take trips to China – almost the same number as last year.

A much bigger gesture will be required as a circuit-breaker if the Huawei issue is kicked up to the Beehive and the Government ultimately backs the GCSB decision.

And as respected Beijing-based businessman David Mahon said this week, the Government will need to demonstrate its concerns about Huawei are valid. "Trust us, we know things you don't," doesn't go that far when retaliation has the power to damage New Zealand.

One temptation Ardern should resist is to frame this issue in terms of nationalism - the little guys standing up to the big bully.

That may get her domestic support but it would make matters worse with China.

Dr Stephen Noakes talks about NZ-China relations.