New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, has had a busy week on the international circuit. On Friday she appeared in front of a packed audience at London’s Chatham House to discuss New Zealand’s international outlook and to laud what she described as a ‘gold standard free trade agreement’ signed with the UK. And though New Zealand is not a member of Nato, Ardern was also invited to attend its leaders’ summit in Madrid on Wednesday, along with other leaders of the Asia Pacific.
Arguably it was Adern’s tempered warnings about China that stood out. In a speech to the summit, Ardern said: ‘China has in recent times… become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules.’
The Chinese embassy in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, hit back at the remarks, calling them ‘misguided’ and ‘not helpful for deepening mutual trust’.
Though the wording of China’s most recent response will likely make New Zealand uncomfortable from a trade perspective, it is unlikely to trouble Wellington too much. China has been known to send stronger statements if it has serious concerns. Nonetheless, with Ardern’s government, and New Zealand’s security architecture, China looms large, and there is a measure of discomfit.
Ardern’s language at the Chatham House event seemed to steer away from bi-lateral tensions with China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner. She described instead the ‘increasing importance of multilateral institutions,’ and the need to ‘protect a rules-based order, not so much West versus others, or democracy versus autocracy’.
The foreign policy of ‘some of the Indo-Pacific’s regions more significant members’ has changed, she said. ‘The order that has brought [the Indo-Pacific] region prosperity over the last 80 years, and the rule of law, is being contested in the South China Sea.’
Again, taking a diplomatic line, she said of China, ‘It would be wrong for us to call out their mere presence – it is the nature of these engagements that matter.’
Adern spoke of needing to ‘ensure that the region can determine its own priorities, and that we all have the ability to speak on issues that concern us, free from coercion.’
She wasn’t drawn by a questioner who asked her thoughts on the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ assertion ‘That there’s a direct read across from Ukraine to Taiwan.’
The reality is, Ardern’s Labour government has settled, for several years now, into a fairly predictable pattern with China. She has stressed the importance of liberal democratic values and perspectives, which has been met, like clockwork, with China issuing portentous official criticisms, with spurts of syntactically glitchy demagoguery in state-approved media.
Following a recent meeting between Joe Biden and Jacinda Ardern at the White House, Beijing issued a similar warning via a media mouthpiece that New Zealand risked ‘giving up its previous political wisdom’.
This came after the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson denounced the joint statement between the US and New Zealand, saying it ‘distorts and smears’ China’s activities.
And last year, when the New Zealand parliament passed a motion which raised concerns on the human rights condition in Xinjiang, the Chinese Embassy responded with a statement that ended with a rhetorical swing and a miss: ‘We hope the NZ Parliament will do more to strengthen the friendship and cooperation between our two countries and people, not the other way around.’
In 2020, China warned New Zealand that it risked damaging the countries’ relationship after New Zealand’s deputy prime minister backed Taiwan rejoining the World Health Organisation. The Chinese Embassy retorted with: ‘We hope that certain people in New Zealand will stop spreading rumours and creating trouble and work to enhance instead of undermining bilateral mutual trust and cooperation.’
At this point, these kinds of exchanges, couched in such language, have become somewhat normalised, and for now at least, there doesn’t seem a great risk of any substantial flare up. Essentially, New Zealand considers itself a big fish in a small pond, while China likely feels it has bigger fish to fry; and it is in the interests of each to accommodate the other.
Towards the end of her remarks this week, Prime Minister Ardern reflected: ‘I think we need to keep a constant check on whether our democracies are meeting the expectations of our public, in the same way our political parties need to keep a check on whether their policies are responding to the needs of their people.’
In this sense, the Prime Minister’s greatest vulnerability isn’t actually with China, it is domestic. Last month, an opinion poll reiterated the findings of one earlier in the year – that whilst she remains a draw at global events such as the one at Chatham House, at home, Ardern’s government is beginning to trail behind the opposition.
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