Trends emerge in New Zealand’s relations with China

New Zealand’s evolving foreign policy – especially with China – is put under the microscope by international analyst Geoffrey Miller, who says it’s important to consider the wider trends and not just the latest twist in the story.

This week’s meeting between Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in Queenstown was yet another opportunity to judge the state of New Zealand’s relationship with China.

It added to 2021’s ever-growing list.

The year began with January’s Freudian slip by Damien O’Connor, who said that Australia needed to “follow us and show respect” to China.

In March, New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta issued joint statements with her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne on both Xinjiang – acknowledging “credible reports of severe human rights abuses” – and Hong Kong.

But April brought Mahuta’s “Dragon and the Taniwha” speech to the NZ China Council, after which she openly stated her unwillingness to sign up to further Five Eyes statements criticising China. Jacinda Ardern subsequently backed Mahuta, saying “New Zealand also has an independent foreign policy”.

May saw recalibration in the other direction at the China Business Summit – with Ardern’s carefully crafted line that differences between Beijing and Wellington were “becoming harder to reconcile”.

However, later that month, Labour vetoed an Act Party attempt to bring a Parliamentary motion that would have declared genocide in Xinjiang. Instead, Labour took the heat out of the motion by substituting genocide with the “severe human rights abuses” phrasing that Mahuta had already used in March.

With anything China-related coming under tight scrutiny, there is a natural temptation for observers to over-interpret the significance of the most recent statement or action.

What are the trends?

The first – as illustrated by the list above – is the concerted effort to balance out China-friendly statements with more critical ones that will placate Western allies.

Another trend – closely related to the first one – is a love of theatre.

This week’s carefully orchestrated and choreographed summit in Queenstown – and the joint statement issued by the Australian and NZ leaders – recalled Ardern’s carefully scripted words at the China Business Summit last month.

After several weeks of surprisingly vicious and sustained criticism in response to Mahuta’s remarks on the Five Eyes, Ardern’s speech on May 3 stressed “differences” with Beijing. It was an address carefully designed to give the appearance that New Zealand had been listening – and was now tacking back towards the West.

In reality, Ardern’s remarks were mild. Nothing of substance had actually changed.

In this sense, this week’s Queenstown meeting was merely another act in 2021’s Sino-New Zealand stage play.

On this point, perhaps the shrewdest analysis came from China itself.  An analysis published in the Global Times – a forum for Beijing to express its views more unofficially – observed that “the joint statement between Canberra and Wellington did not really exceed the previous position of New Zealand regarding China-related issues.” If New Zealand’s position did seem a little harsher in tone, this was about “showing some respect and support for Australia’s feelings”, rather than any indication that New Zealand was “blindly joining an anti-China chariot”.

These very short-term trends are important.

But so are the longer-term ones.

One is New Zealand’s growing enthusiasm for the “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical concept.

Indo-Pacific – a substitute for the more common Asia-Pacific – was initially used by an Indian academic in 2007, before being co-opted by Japanese and Australian policymakers from around 2011.

But it was the Trump administration – and especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – that truly popularised the concept and brought it into the diplomatic mainstream.

The unstated but unsubtle aim behind “Indo-Pacific” is to deemphasise China’s centrality in the region.

It comes as no surprise that Winston Peters – a China sceptic known for his pro-US stance – became a big fan of the term during his time as foreign minister.

But it might seem surprising that Nanaia Mahuta and Jacinda Ardern – hardly the biggest fans of the Trump administration – have continued to embrace the term after Peters’ departure.

If anything, the Labour government has become even more enthusiastic about it – as shown by the use of Indo-Pacific in this year’s Budget documents.

To be fair, New Zealand is still largely shying away from using the extended and even blunter version of the phrase often used by the US and its closest allies: a “free and open Indo-Pacific’.

But even this may only be a matter of time. Labour’s enthusiasm for the Indo-Pacific shows the term’s popularity crosses party lines.

The inspiration to do so may well come from across the Pacific: despite largely repudiating all things Trump, the Biden administration has itself wholeheartedly adopted the Indo-Pacific rhetoric and pressure on China that the Trump administration started.

Examples of this continuity are not hard to find. In March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin chose to travel jointly (in itself a highly unusual move) to Japan and South Korea for their symbolic first foreign trip. And in the same month, the Quad, a relatively new grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States that exemplifies the Indo-Pacific concept, held its first summit, in virtual form.

In diplomatic terms, the symbolism of these Indo-Pacific meetings – and their early timing – is something of a sledgehammer.

And it is this last trend – continuity and consensus across administrations of very different political persuasions – that may turn out to be the most important one of all.

Geoffrey Miller is an international analyst at the Democracy Project. He has lived and travelled extensively in the Middle East and is a fluent Arabic speaker.

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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