New Zealand must build bridges with China but show independent foreign policy

The New Zealand government sided with its “mates” this week, objecting to China’s caricaturing of alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers. This is consistent with New Zealand shifting more into line with the US-led Five Eyes security alliance and its quickly escalating cold war with China.

The problem is that it is also a further degradation of New Zealand’s much vaunted “independent foreign policy” and risks undermining the relationship with China, which could ultimately hit citizens in the pocket.

Previously, New Zealand has managed a nimble high-wire act, balancing the interests of our major trading partner, China, and the traditional Anglo-American defence allies. Now it seems we are in danger of falling off the tightrope – or even being pulled off – and our landing could be disastrous. Any trade punishment meted out by China for siding against them could be significant, leading to a lower standard of living for New Zealanders.

For one government MP it’s as simple as “mates supporting mates”. Labour’s Louisa Wall is telling the world to forgo drinking New Zealand wine, and buy Australian instead, in order to put China in its place after it caricatured the alleged war crimes of our trans-Tasman “mates” and introduced tariffs on Australian wine. Wall has joined forces with a National MP from across the aisle, as well as other anti-China politicians from around the world, against what they allege is bullying by Beijing.

It is not the first time New Zealand has stumbled in its high-wire act. During its first term Jacinda Ardern’s government pivoted away from its warming relationship with China and firmly back into the orbit of the US. This involved hawkish defence spending and strongly worded diplomatic speeches that clearly favoured the US and began to position China as a threat to this country. It culminated in an indication that Huawei would be banned from contracts for the new 5G telecommunications network.

The response from China was strong: Beijing essentially stopped returning calls to Ardern and colleagues, an expected upgrade to New Zealand’s trading relationship was put on hold, export goods were left on wharves unprocessed by China customs officials, and an Air NZ flight was turned back halfway to Shanghai for not having the correct paperwork. China’s president, Xi Jinping, very pointedly warned Ardern that “our two sides must trust each other”.

Much of the blame for the cooling of the relationship was laid on the pro-American NZ First party in coalition with Labour – which held the crucial portfolios of foreign affairs and defence. Now with that party gone and Labour effectively governing alone, Ardern’s administration might have been expected to return to a more cautious and successful balancing act. Nanaia Mahuta’s replacement of Winston Peters in the role of foreign minister was expected to bring a more progressive stance.

However the first major decision Mahuta took was to sign up to a Five Eyes proclamation to rebuke China over Hong Kong. In Mahuta’s words, she thought it was time to “turn the dial up” on China. This bullish decision surprised China, as previously New Zealand had avoided pile-ons against our main trading partner, preferring to issue our criticisms independently of the US and the Anglophone alliance.

Mahuta then issued a snub to the Chinese ambassador in Wellington, essentially saying she was in no hurry to be introduced to her, and their embassy would have to wait in line until she had first visited all the Pacific diplomats.

There is clearly pressure on New Zealand to fully back the other Five Eyes countries’ wish to contain China’s influence, especially in the Pacific. So it should not surprise that Ardern chose this week to join the over-the-top denunciations of a tweet by a Chinese foreign official of a fake photograph that depicted an Australian soldier slitting a child’s throat. Ardern and Mahuta, like their Anglophone allies, seized on the graphic used in the Chinese tweet, labelling it “unfactual” and “disinformation”.

To make matters worse the New Zealand government is not willing to condemn Australian abuses. Yet if Ardern is silent about her allies’ wrongdoing in Afghanistan or Iraq, she also undermines New Zealand’s moral authority to call out China for actions against Uighurs, and in Hong Kong.

These are two areas where New Zealand has raised concerns, suggesting that China is mistreating Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province and denying elected representatives in Hong Kong their democratic right to stand in elections.

So far there has been no retaliation for New Zealand joining China’s enemies in rebuking Beijing. But the risks are increasing. New Zealand is well aware that China is particularly keen to promote its positive relationship with this country as a model for the rest of the world. Hence in the past China has turned a blind eye to criticisms coming out of Wellington.

This will change if Ardern’s government gives in to a rising anti-China mood and the clamour for harder lines. China will push back against any humiliation if it senses New Zealand is siding with western aggression towards it.

For the good of relations with China, and especially to protect the economic interests of New Zealand workers reliant for jobs and prosperity on the strong trading relationship, the Labour government needs to quickly repair the damage.

Ardern should travel to Beijing to show New Zealand isn’t turning against our biggest partner. If not her, then Mahuta. And, no, this isn’t a difficult thing to do in Covid times – last week, for example, Australia’s Scott Morrison travelled to Japan to buoy up relations.

Such a visit to Beijing won’t make either Morrison or Joe Biden particularly happy – they want Ardern to turn up the heat on China rather than build bridges. But it is time for her government to show that the “independent foreign policy” is more than just a fiction.

Dr Bryce Edwards is the political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he is the director of the Democracy Project.

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