New Zealanders, especially NZ businesses, should temper their expectations of a strong relationship with China
Opinion: Last week, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta made the first ministerial visit since 2019 to the People’s Republic of China for high-level meetings. With few concrete deliverables announced, the key achievement was stabilising bilateral relations at a time of growing regional instability.
Managing relations with China in 2023 was never going to be easy. Chinese officials have declared an “era of great change unseen in a century” and initiated a more proactive foreign policy. Their counterparts in the US have pushed back with “strategic competition”.
Considering these competing postures and the importance of both relationships for many New Zealand people and businesses, how could it not be challenging?
It was therefore reassuring to see Mahuta reaffirm that “we take seriously the way in which we look after the relationship with China”. As an evolving relationship, it is one that requires resources and attention, not just to maintain trade and economic engagement, but increasingly to understand and manage differences across a range of bilateral and geopolitical challenges.
One example reportedly central to the discussions in Beijing was the respective positions taken on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China has developed a close relationship with Russia. It announced a peace plan that stressed the importance of sovereignty but did not critique Russia’s invasion or call for a Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Instead, it criticised countries for imposing sanctions on Russia.
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This is starkly different from New Zealand’s position, where Parliament introduced an autonomous sanctions law in response to Russia’s invasion and breaches of international law.
New Zealand businesses have not appeared overly concerned that a third of our exports go to one market. However, they will be concerned with the slowing Chinese demand of recent months and looking for signs of a sustained pick up
This should remind any casual observer of international affairs that differences with Beijing are not getting any easier to manage.
This reality was plainly obvious in the carefully chosen words of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins before the visit.
Hipkins reiterated the importance of the relationship and the value of in-person engagement. He argued that New Zealand needed a more diverse network of trading relationships and that Kiwi exporters should not put all their eggs in one basket, that we live in a globally uncertain world and that businesses need to take heed of that.
Asked if our trade and exports are currently diverse enough, he quickly replied, “no, not at all”.
New Zealand businesses have not appeared overly concerned that a third of our exports go to one market. However, they will be concerned with the slowing Chinese demand of recent months and looking for signs of a sustained pick up, as well as signs of whether the Chinese economy is turning inward.
And they’ll be seeking reassurances that the New Zealand Government’s approach can manage differences in a way that stabilises the relationship and that we are not heading for an Australian-style trade conflict.
Mahuta’s visit should assuage some of these concerns, but by no means all.
Meeting with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Mahuta reportedly stressed the importance of the relationship and called for the resumption of in-person officials’ meetings, invited Qin to visit New Zealand and discussed the possibility of a Prime Ministerial visit to China.
Mahuta also raised New Zealand’s deep concern about Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, about tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.
She emphasised “Aotearoa New Zealand’s interest in a peaceful, stable and resilient Pacific region and the importance of engaging through existing regional institutions and arrangements, in particular on regional security matters”, likely in reference to Wang Yi’s 2022 tour of the Pacific.
These conversations could not have been easy.
Such differences have contributed over the years to a shift in public perceptions of China in New Zealand. This means more of the bandwidth in the relationship is taken up managing differences instead of pursuing deliverables.
This is the regrettable reality of 2023.
Mahuta also met Beijing’s lead on foreign policy, Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs.
The Chinese readout of this meeting indicated Beijing’s desire for more engagement with New Zealand, for New Zealand to compete for more firsts in the relationship, and for New Zealand to engage more on new Chinese initiatives.
These include the Global Security Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Civilisation Initiative, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Each promotes a new type of international relations and the development of what Chinese officials call “a community with a shared future for mankind”.
Chinese officials now regularly talk of Chinese-style modernity, reject ‘Western-style values’, and openly critique the US and ‘the West’.
They have initiated a global debate on world order that will shape international relations in the coming decades, and one that deserves careful consideration and study.
We’ll need to be able to engage on these points of difference, and not just the points of difference that we highlight, to find any areas of alignment and maintain momentum in the bilateral relationship.
In the meantime, New Zealanders, especially New Zealand businesses, should temper their expectations. An uneasy sort of stability, not deliverables, were the win in this visit.