New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta

Why the Relationship between New Zealand and China Is in Flux

When a foreign minister tells exporters to diversify trade agreements, and not put all their eggs “in one basket with China”, it’s likely things are about to change. But how, that remains to be seen.

The soft warning came from New Zealand’s Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta. She referred to China as the dragon and New Zealand as taniwha, symbols for a bi-lateral relationship of “differences and mutual respect”.

A taniwha is a supernatural creature and guardian of the Māori tradition. “The taniwha, like the dragon, has the ability to understand the essence of its environment and changing conditions — as well as the ability to adapt and survive,” Mahuta told the Guardian in an interview on Tuesday.

The image of the kangaroo was added by media commentators to complete the Australian-Pacific-Chinese triangle of trade, in which Australia may be looking for support from their old friend and long time ally across the Tasman sea.

Mahuta recently emphasised the New Zealand-China relationship is one in which all New Zealanders have an interest, and that the government approach keeps in mind all New Zealanders’ long-term interests. She also said the recent upgrade of the fair trade agreement with China will have “new benefits for New Zealand businesses” but added it is “prudent not to put all eggs in a single basket”.

New Zealand finds itself between a rock and a hard place — between the dragon and the kangaroo, as it were. Especially since China punished Australia with tariffs and bans on coal, wine, barley, lamb, beef, lobster, and timber. This was not because of issues raised about the situation the Uyghur people find themselves in, but after Australia asked for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus last year.

Ironically, China’s consumers and companies are hurting from these measures as well. As ‘The Conversation’ reported in February, China’s import bans are a diplomatic fail.

So far, New Zealand has been trying to avoid being crushed, by playing it neutral. China is not only Australia’s largest trading partner, but New Zealand’s too, with nearly a third of its export-goods going to ‘the dragon’, worth NZ$33.4 billion in 2019. There are 247,000 New Zealander-Chinese living in the country.

It’s also best friends with Australia (personality issues between various ministers and prime ministers over time aside). This doesn’t always mean they’re on the same page when it comes to China, even though they’re both part of the ‘Five Eyes’ (FVEY), an intelligence alliance comprising of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

However, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, has made it clear that the country doesn’t want the ‘intelligence framework’ to be invoked every time, on every issue, in its relationship with China.

Instead, the country of the taniwha “builds bi-lateral relations” that are long-term and align with the Pacific nation’s values and interests. It was a comment that gained Jacinda Ardern aggressive criticism from FVEY allies, with one British Tory MP suggesting New Zealand is ‘sucking up to China’.

Since then, New Zealand’s parliament unanimously approved a motion on the Uygher population in China, expressing concern over ‘the possible severe human rights abuses taking place’ but stopping short of calling it genocide as many other countries have done.

At the same time, the gulf between the taniwha and the kangaroo now seems to be narrowing. Perhaps New Zealand realises that it has been a little bit naive when it comes to the dragon’s geopolitical and domestic strategies. What’s more, the China of Xi Jinping is different from that of Hu Jintao, far more aggressive, assertive and emboldened.

Alexander Gillespie, an international law professor at Waikato University, told RNZ that Australia is looking to New Zealand for third party support. “The storm is real, the trade war is going formal. Either Australia is right or China. Normally [New Zealand as a country doesn’t] get involved, but in some matters, it’s essential that we do.”

In her Guardian-interview this week, Mahuta used the same weather metaphor: “We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves — it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us.”

Her comments came ahead of a planned face-to-face meeting this weekend, between the prime ministers of New Zealand and Australia Jacinda Ardern and Scot Morrison. With Victoria in strict lockdown since yesterday, this visit may now be postponed. Government officials were scrambling today to work out how the Australian Prime Minister can still visit this weekend, without having to go into isolation, RNZ reported this morning.

Last time Ardern and Morrison met in person was February 2020. The world was a much different place.

Update: an excellent summary of the after-talks press conference by Ardern and Morrison on June 1, reported by Newsroom’s political editor Jo Muir, can be found here:

© Sitara Morgenster

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