The level of orchestration and political acting was turned up a notch this week in Queenstown by prime ministers Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison, who went to great pains to put on a highly contrived united front about their different orientations towards China.
Clearly, both leaders were highly sensitive to the danger of the escalating tensions between the two countries getting out of hand, and consciously tried to dial back any public sense of differences.
The strategy was a tremendous success, resulting in dozens of media reports produced locally and overseas about the unity of the two leaders in the summit.
It was a sharp contrast to the preceding weeks of increasing speculation about a split between the transtasman counterparts over how to deal with Beijing.
The intense attempt to paper over the differences and to project a new common position on China has sparked further questions. Was Wellington being pulled into line over China? Or was Canberra having to move away from its critical stance towards Wellington's foreign policy? It was probably a bit of both.
Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien portrayed the event as a deliberate move to prevent greater transtasman conflict from breaking out: "Like so many family feuds, the leaders dealt with it all by playing happy families" – see: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison departs New Zealand with no real shift on major trans-Tasman pressure points.
O'Brien points out that despite all the superficial unity, in terms of substance, "there has been no shift on the major pressure points affecting the transtasman relationship". She argues that Australia managed to come out on top, with Ardern not actually winning any concessions on important issues for her country: "There was plenty of talk but no real shifts in New Zealand's favour on any of those pressure points. Australia does what it wants when it wants."
The contrived unity of the leaders was emphasised by Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper, who describes the bilateral meeting as "highly orchestrated with them both walking on eggshells" – see: Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison's fleeting trip to Queenstown highly orchestrated. He suggests the attempts to show unity is "a front simply because there's trouble on the horizon [over China], and they will need each other".
Soper reports that the level of personal friendship was played up for the public: "They're Scott and Jenny to our Prime Minister and our first couple are Jacinda and Clarke to their Prime Minister. Never since the days of sleepovers by John Key at the Sydney mansion of Malcolm Turnbull has there been such transtasman bonhomie."
The degree that the media were controlled at the summit by Government spin-doctors is conveyed, with Soper saying he tried to ask Morrison the "only unscripted question" of the press conference, and Ardern shut this down, saying: "Oh look we won't get into ad-libbing there Bri, Barry, 'cos it's not fair on everyone else".
Soper responds to this in his column: "That shows how stage managed this whole day was, journalists having to submit their questions in advance, presumably to ensure the experienced leaders aren't blindsided and risk undoing all the love that had been so carefully expressed."
For more on how stage-managed the event was, see Justin Giovannetti's 'How do you spell hongi?' 26 hours in Queenstown with ScoMo and Jacinda.
He playfully sums up the leaders meeting like this: "In a carefully cultivated display of family love, the two prime ministers — or as they put it: Scott and Jacinda — declared their countries to be devoted to each other, despite meddling foreign influences trying to drive them apart."
Giovannetti reports that despite a media presence of about 50 people, New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs insisted on allowing only four questions, in advance, from each country's respective media pack. The end result was that politicians were the winners, with little changing: "Both prime ministers got to go home with a win. Neither changed anything about their positions on China."
Ardern and Morrison acted as a kind of tag-team against reporters' attempts to find differences over the China issue. This is conveyed well in Jo Moir's article, Scott Morrison kills any notion of China rift. She says that media were confronted by a "cuddle puddle", and during the interview session, "Morrison was there to 'concur' and 'agree' with Ardern at every turn."
Moir is unconvinced by Morrison's repeated attempts to dissuade the media that the Australian Government is onside with Wellington's approach towards China, and explains what she thinks is going on: "The Australian media haven't created a China narrative out of thin air and the questions put to the leaders came from a place of some knowledge and insight from within Morrison's government.
"It doesn't make political sense for Morrison to speak of a war between New Zealand and Australia in such a public setting, and he is no doubt happy to leave that [anti-New Zealand message] to officials leaking to media and comments from his own colleagues, like his Defence Minister Peter Dutton."
Moir also comments on the one area that the two leaders had obviously decided to allow differences to be shown: "The only thing the pair found something to disagree on during formal talks was the old transtasman battle over Australia's hard-line deportation policy".
Heather du Plessis-Allan has characterised the meeting as a contrived "love fest" in which "ScoMo and Jacinda really want you to know they're best friends right now" – see: Ardern and Morrison laid it on thick in Queenstown love fest.
Here's her account of the attempt at fake unity: "Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern went out of their way to convince us that they are friends. Jacinda Ardern mentioned more than once how often they talk to each other, saying at one stage during the Covid response she was in more contact with ScoMo than her mum. They swapped jerseys, and they drove it home by trying very hard to call each other by their first names. No Prime Minister Ardern and Prime Minister Morrison here. It was all Jacinda and Scott."
Du Plessis-Allan says the strategy was "obviously an attempt to kill off perception that New Zealand is cosying up to China, and splitting from its Western allies". As to why this would be, she speculates on the possible audience being China, the US, or just all the critics of New Zealand's orientation to China.
It might also be a part of a general move by New Zealand more back into line with Australia: "Some believe New Zealand has realised its error in cosying up to China and is correcting it."
Today's Herald editorial isn't buying all the forced bonhomie, instead lampooning the rather contrived patching up of differences, including the press conference in which the big issue of China was constantly discussed without the country's name being uttered – see: Editorial: Friends reunion for Five Eyes? (paywalled).
Here's the newspaper's conclusion: "Like the actors from the wildly popular TV show, we are bound to be friends for life. But, despite this week's staged-for-photo hongi and sports jumper trading, the friendship appears as strained as it has ever been."
'That old Anzac spirit'
Note, however, not everyone was so critically minded about what happened in Queenstown – today's Otago Daily Times salutes the visit as a great triumph, arguing that "we should not be too cynical" about the contrived friendliness and displays of unity, saying "it was impossible not to feel just a little warm inside about the resumption of Anzac relations" – see: That old Anzac spirit.
So, did Ardern capitulate to Morrison over China? There's some sense of this in Richard Harman's account of what happened in Queenstown: "What was evident both in the communique issued at the end of the pair's talks and in their joint media conference was that New Zealand is now inching closer to Australia's position on China. We are not there yet, but it would seem we are on our way" – see: Together – only slightly apart (paywalled).
According to Harman, the joint statement to come out of Queenstown was much more in line with Australia's orientation to China than New Zealand's.
Despite Morrison's friendly behaviour to Ardern this week, according to Harman, this shouldn't disguise the fact that ultimately he's much more concerned with staying on side with the US: "New Zealand may be family to Australia — as Morrison continually says — but its best mate is the United States."
Audrey Young also points out that the "leaders' joint statement is more direct [about China] this year", and that "New Zealand has become more critical of China, not less" – see: Why Scott Morrison revived the Anzus alliance after talks with Ardern (paywalled).
And she argues that Morrison's friendly line towards New Zealand was entirely strategic: "He knows that any sense of public disagreement on China will please only China and as a regional leader, it is in his interests to present a unified position with New Zealand."
Young suggests that there was in fact a heavy message given to New Zealand in Queenstown: "The fact that Scott Morrison deliberately alluded to the Anzus alliance with New Zealand twice is a departure from the usual invocations of the Anzac spirit. Analysts will be poring over his statements, especially in light of Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton's public musings about armed conflict.
"These things are not said for nothing. The Anzus reference is likely a gesture on the part of Australia to remind New Zealand that it is a formal defence ally in dealing with the area known as the Indo Pacific and that requires obligations, not complete independence."
Stuff political editor Luke Malpass similarly argues that Australia's continued emphasis in Queenstown on the need for a "free and open Indo-Pacific" is telling, asserting that regional players need to push back stronger against China. And the "Anzac" rhetoric is translated: "In other words: both countries will seek to uphold and defend the US-led international order against Chinese assertiveness in the region" – see: Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison: an Anzac Indo-Pacific mission accomplished.
Nonetheless, Malpass concludes that the meeting was a great success for the two leaders: "New Zealand and Australia are singing from the same song sheet on China. And it is a domestic political win for both leaders. Australia thinks it has pulled New Zealand back into the sceptical-about-China club. While New Zealand, which never thought it was really out, gets to reaffirm that the transtasman relationship and western alliance is bigger than any current leader."
The response from Beijing to the Queenstown meeting can be read in Zane Small's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta brushes off China's 'predictable' response to NZ-Australia statement on Hong Kong, Xinjiang.
The key part of this is this statement from China's foreign affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin: "The leaders of Australia and New Zealand, with irresponsible remarks on China's internal affairs relating to Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as the South China Sea issue, have made groundless accusations against China, grossly interfered in China's internal affairs and seriously violated the international law and basic norms governing international relations."
But Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta isn't too worried about this, and argues that Beijing won't really find much to be offended by what Ardern and Morrison said, because "these joint statements are very predictable and consistent with what we've already said".
Perhaps of much more interest and significance is an article published in the China state-controlled Global Times, which is highly sympathetic to New Zealand's position and actions – see Ning Tuanhui's Wellington continues its pragmatic policy despite Canberra pressure. The key part of this article is the following about the joint Ardern-Morrison communique: "The statement was more intended to show the two sides' general unity. And by including these China-related issues in the statement, New Zealand was showing some respect and support for Australia's feelings, instead of blindly joining an anti-China chariot."
Finally, just why has Australia diverged from New Zealand's pragmatic orientation towards China? Chris Trotter explains today that Australia has gone hard against China, risking disastrous trade wars and even all-out military conflict because of the rise of Christian fundamentalists to the top of its government – see: Australia's Eschatological diplomacy.
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.