Dear Australia, I would like to formally offer an apology on behalf of New Zealand. I have no authority to do so, you understand, and the capacity in which I submit it is purely personal.
Yet I know I am not the only Kiwi who is mortified by the sermon delivered last week by New Zealand’s trade minister, Damien O’Connor, about the relationship between Australia and China. Following the news of New Zealand’s upgraded free trade agreement with China, O’Connor was asked in an interview with CNBC about that relationship. He replied that he couldn’t comment on Australia’s position, and then proceeded to do so, saying: ‘Clearly if they were to follow us and show respect – I guess, a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording – then they too could hopefully be in a similar situation.’
In one deft move, the minister patted New Zealand on the back with one hand while stabbing its closest ally in the back with the other. It’s not just that he undermined our great mate, but that he did so while claiming the moral high ground, when actually we have ceded it. An act of capitulation, of appeasement, towards a hegemonic human rights monster, is nothing to be proud of.
He may as well have just stood up, waving around the agreement and announced, ‘Trade for our time!’
This is not to suggest that we should cancel our agreement with China and cut off all ties. China is New Zealand’s biggest trade partner, and our economy is very dependent on that trade. New Zealand was the first country to have such an agreement with China. Trade between the two countries exceeds $32 billion a year.
But no one can deny China’s growing aggression and malevolent influence and interference around the world, and the repressive regime it imposes on its subjects. A united front is surely required.
There is something very distasteful, if not totally abhorrent, about pretending that New Zealand is acting in a principled way and preaching to Australia, while it is being punished for actually doing just that.
Perhaps O’Connor’s comments made me feel so squeamish because they were reported a day after UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the words ‘never again’ were still ringing in my ears. As we said those words, at least one million – perhaps up to three million – Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are imprisoned in concentration camps in the Xinjiang province in China, for no other reason than to eradicate their religion and culture. China claims these are re-education centres to help stamp out extremism. But its inmates are subjected to torture, forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Women are reportedly forcibly sterilised. The only foreign policy consensus between President Trump’s outgoing administration and President Biden’s incoming one is that this constitutes genocide.
Then of course there’s Hong Kong, where, just as with Taiwan and Tibet, China is crushing its independence and stripping away the people’s rights.
To be fair, New Zealand has not been completely silent on these issues. Prime Minister Ardern has reportedly raised the issue of the Uyghurs on numerous occasions, including in her 2019 meeting with President Xi Jinping, although it is not clear what she said. New Zealand tends to raise human rights issues in private dialogue (and more often between foreign affairs officials and diplomats rather than at ministerial level). In July 2019 the country signed a letter to the head of the UN Human Rights Commission along with 21 other countries criticising China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. And Ardern did declare concern over China’s propagation of the falsified image of the Australian soldier.
But eyebrows were raised recently when New Zealand declined to co-sign the Five Eyes statement condemning China’s policy towards Hong Kong, preferring an independent stance. This disunity will have delighted China.
It seems New Zealand wants to have its mooncake and eat it too. We rely heavily on Five Eyes for intelligence. We have very limited defence capability. We tend to expect other members of our geo-political alliances to do the heavy lifting and honour their obligations while we make lofty utterances about independence and neutrality with a smugness that we are afforded through our geographical isolation and the comfort that our allies will always have our back. Remember Anzus?
New Zealand is less on the high ground, more on the high wire, trying to pull off a dangerous and delicate balancing act. Consider Ardern’s answer to a reporter, when she was on her way to China in 2019, just over a fortnight after the devastating mosque massacres that left 51 Kiwi Muslims murdered. Under pressure to raise China’s persecution of Uyghurs with Xi Jinping, she said: ‘In positioning ourselves on those issues, it is never about picking sides. It’s always based on upholding the international rule of law, maintaining a position of New Zealand’s interests, and very much taking a principled approach that isn’t about the position of any other nation, regardless of whether they are partners or allies, but simply maintaining a position that responds to New Zealand’s interests and independence.’ In Ardern’s familiar style, she used a lot of nice-sounding words to say nothing. After several read-throughs and head-scratchings, the meaning I can most confidently decipher is what our former PM Robert Muldoon said a little more succinctly in 1980, ‘Our foreign policy is trade’.
It seems that policy hasn’t really changed. Indeed, the current government’s stance on China is a continuation of successive governments, led by both National and Labour. National’s John Key visited China seven times as prime minister, and was a very strong advocate of China and Xi Jinping’s leadership. In 2018, he said ‘I think Xi Jinping’s going to go down in history as a good leader of China.’ An MP in his government had been a CCP member and worked in military intelligence. New Zealand has not grappled with interference from China in its politics in the same way Australia has.
So Australia, in the spirit of the Anzacs, of mateship, and in the best style of a bilateral trade negotiation, I’d like to make this proposal. Can we just forget and forgive about what O’Connor said? In return we will pretend the Underarm Bowling Incident never happened and won’t talk about the current state of play with Australian cricket. And as a sweetener, you can claim the pavlova, Phar Lap, and Crowded House. Deal?
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