Speculation about cooling relations between China and New Zealand seems overstated, based on speeches from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and China’s ambassador to New Zealand.
Both were in attendance at the eighth China Business Summit in Auckland on Monday, an event held in the wake of significant foreign policy speeches and statements by Ardern at the White House, to Nato and in Australia.
Her comments earned a rebuke from China, which last week warned of potential consequences if United States house of representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi travelled to Taiwan on her Southeast Asian trip. At the summit Ardern characterised the Taiwan issue as a US foreign policy matter.
In Ardern’s keynote address at the summit, which a commentator described as taking a softer, friendlier tone towards the Asian superpower, Ardern commemorated the 50th anniversary of NZ and China initiating formal diplomatic relations in 1972.
“In the three years immediately following our first diplomatic connections, bilateral trade increased to $38 million,” she said.
“Fast-forward 50 years and that figure is now closer to $38 billion.”
Ardern spoke about the economic and cultural ties between China and NZ, describing the relationship as mature, complex and important. She also stressed the importance of dialogue, diplomacy and adherence to the international rule-based order.
NZ has an independent foreign policy and will continue to speak out on some issues, she said – sometimes with others and sometimes alone.
“We have done this recently on issues in the Pacific.
“We also have consistently expressed our concerns about economic coercion, human rights, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong.
“Managing the differences in our relationship is not always going to be easy and there are no guarantees. But as a government, we continue to work hard – through dialogue and diplomacy.”
Notably, Ardern said she hoped to lead a trade delegation to China when covid-19 restrictions allow. Any trip to Beijing would be her first since 2019.
The prime minister also spoke about opportunities for NZ and China to cooperate, including on climate change.
Wang Xiaolong, the new Chinese ambassador to NZ, spoke after Ardern and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor, who talked, among other things, about the upgraded free trade agreement with China that came into effect in April.
Wang said he was deeply encouraged by the remarks made by Ardern and O’Connor. Like Ardern, he made reference to the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
“Over those 50 years, China-NZ cooperation has created many firsts, leading the relations between China and Western developed countries,” Wang said.
“These rich assets have laid a solid foundation for the further development of bilateral relations.”
However, Wang warned against complacency.
“What we have achieved has not taken place as a matter of course, but rather as the result of painstaking efforts from both sides.”
Commitment, consolidation and growth were the key concepts both NZ and China should focus on in developing their relations, Wang said. The ambassador made bullish comments about the health of the Chinese economy which, while experiencing pandemic-related headwinds, still recorded growth in the first half of this year. However, reaching its full-year target of 5.5% GDP growth now looks unlikely.
Wang said NZ businesses and other stakeholders stand to benefit from the doubling of Chinese middle-income earners to about 800 million in the next 15 years.
China and NZ share interests in maintaining global and regional peace and promoting common prosperity and global sustainable development, he said, adding that China is firmly committed to upholding multilateralism.
“China opposes unilateralism, hegemony, Cold War mentality, military alliances, the division of the world, along ideological lines or otherwise, into exclusive or even opposing blocs or spheres of influence and the coercion of other countries.”
Former prime minister Helen Clark and former deputy prime minister Winston Peters also attended the summit, with Clark appearing on a panel where she encouraged NZ to move on from what a fellow panellist characterised as an inward-looking approach in response to the pandemic.
Ministers and others need to spend time in the Pacific, Clark said.
“We have to engage. Because if we’re not out there, we leave a vacuum.”