The day before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provided a lesson in how Xi can react if he feels he has been ambushed or pushed too hard.
Ardern will meet Xi on Friday evening. On Thursday, Xi was filmed tearing strips off Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “leaking” to the media about their talks at the G20 Summit.
Canadian media had reported that Trudeau had accused China of interfering in Canadian politics.
Xi confronted Trudeau in front of a media pool, berating him for leaking details of their talks to the Canadian media as “not appropriate.”
It may not do Trudeau any harm to be seen talking tough with China on a domestic front.
But Ardern is almost certain to be more circumspect about her talks with Xi.
Ardern arrived in Bangkok today, and will meet with Xi on Friday evening.
Ahead of that, she has described the New Zealand relationship with China as “mature.”
What “mature” meant was that the two countries knew how to talk to each other - or at least that New Zealand knew how to talk to China - without things getting too tense.
Ardern’s comment appeared to be partly making a contrast between New Zealand’s relationship with China, and the US-China relationship.
It came in the context of Ardern being asked about the meeting earlier in the week between Xi and US President Joe Biden.
“In mature relationships, which is certainly what New Zealand has with China, there will be areas of difference. But we need to be able to have the possibility to have dialogue and diplomacy to resolve those issues rather than an escalation of tension,” she had said.
When super powers are not being “mature” with each other, it is a far more dangerous scenario than when a tiny country and a superpower are not.
And Trudeau’s experience shows that even Canada is a tiny country when it comes to China. Trudeau was not given a formal bilateral meeting - he and Xi had the less formal “pull-aside.” Ardern has a formal meeting, as did Australian’s Anthony Albanese.
Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, told The Guardian that Xi’s confrontration was partly to send a message to other countries.
“At the end of the day, Canada isn’t Europe or the United States and Xi knows he can take a more aggressive stance publicly. Moreover, he can use Canada as an example to other states without much in the way of consequences.”
“Consequences” is exactly what has long concerned New Zealand.
Ardern’s language on China has waxed and waned, but her guiding rule is to be consistent and predictable in what she raises - and to hold her punches in how it is raised.
Some of Ardern’s comments on her visit to the White House to meet Joe Biden in May raised China’s eyebrows. She appeared to lean closer to the US, especially on the issue of China’s involvement in the Pacific.
Ardern’s rhetoric has changed back down since then.
In her speech to the EAS, she listed Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Seas and the treatment of the Uyghur people among her greatest concerns for the region. All of them related to China’s actions - but she did not name China once.
She later pointed out that she did not need to, since it was blatantly obvious it was China she was talking about.
But that also made it blatantly obvious she was deliberately not naming them - she had named Russia, North Korea and Myanmar’s junta in other parts of her address.
She will raise all of those things directly with Xi in her meeting - and none of them will come as a surprise to him. She will also raise the concern about China and the US in the Pacific - and venture that Xi could help deal with Russia over the war in Ukraine, pointing out its impacts are on China’s economy too.
For many countries - including New Zealand - trade with China is a complicating factor in how blunt they can be.
Ardern will head to that possible meeting fresh from a visit to another Communist country - Vietnam - with which it has a less delicate and much less dependent relationship.
Vietnam is only our 15th largest trading partner. While there, a decision to allow Vietnam to import limes to New Zealand was inked, Ardern officially opened the first Eco Store shop in Ho Chi Minh City.
It sounds like small fry, because it is. But there is a point in Ardern’s mission to try to grow that trade.
Vietnam trade has grown by 43 per cent over the last five years and 300 per cent since 2009. That sounds like more than it is: two-way trade sits at about $2 billion.
By contrast, New Zealand’s two-way trade with China comes to $40 billion.
The point of courting trade with countries such as Vietnam is self-protection. There may come a point when New Zealand feels it can no longer tip-toe around China’s sensitivity.
Earlier in the year, as concern rose that New Zealand might have to take a firmer stand against China because of its engagements in the Pacific, Ardern and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor were advising exporters to find more markets than China to export to.
The reason is the risk that the trade relationship with China either shrinks because of China’s economic slowdown, or if China took retailiatory action to a position New Zealand had taken, as it had with Australia. Ardern has also been promoting the other major trade agreements her government has brokered: the United Kingdom and European Union among them.
Vietnam trade might be small - but it is a case of the more the merrier: many Vietnamese-sized trading relationships help protect New Zealand against its reliance on China.