NZ-China relations: What’s in it for Beijing? – Newsroom

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Ideasroom

New Zealand has not suffered like other countries for criticising China. Catherine Churchman of Victoria University of Wellington wonders why, and what else China might want from us

As the dust settles from a few months of journalistic speculation about New Zealand’s relations with the People’s Republic of China — brought on by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s Dragon and Taniwha speech, the NZ Parliament’s Xinjiang human rights vote, and the 60 Minutes documentary which claimed our Government was in the pocket of Beijing — the most important piece of the puzzle has yet to be probed: What’s in it for China?

To answer this question we have to look beyond the New Zealand Government’s longstanding political spin on the “maturity” and “predictability” of the relationship, or its recent self-congratulation about what a deft approach it has had in handling the sensitivities of the Chinese Communist Party government. To understand what China wants out of the relationship, we need to pay much closer attention to how the PRC treats New Zealand in contrast to other countries, and look for possible reasons as to why it does so.


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Let’s first consider the PRC’s toolkit for the punishment and coercion of other countries. In the past 10 years, the CCP government has frequently punished states that displease it by inventing problems with food imports, whipping up social media hatestorms and boycott campaigns, discouraging students from studying there, and even kidnapping foreign nationals and keeping them in custody without diplomatic access for years. These measures have been employed variously against Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and Korea.

However, few coercive measures have yet been brought to bear on New Zealand. This is despite the fact that since May 2020, the Ardern government has issued 20 critical statements on China. It has done so both with other states as well as individually, and has criticised matters such as the CCP government’s severe human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the harsh crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, the exclusion of Taiwan from the World Health Assembly, and arbitrary detentions of foreign nationals. Remarkably, though other critical states have been singled out for economic sanctions, New Zealand has received nothing more than a few pro-forma tongue lashings from Chinese diplomats.

Meanwhile the PRC propaganda machine continues to churn out stories on how New Zealand is refusing to take sides against China despite pressure from the US and other partners—and the media in many countries has lapped up that framing too. The Chinese foreign ministry’s most-famous “wolf warrior”, Zhao Lijian, has even praised New Zealand, saying, “China’s successful relations with so many countries around the world, including with New Zealand, show that countries, though different in history, tradition, social system and development stage, are perfectly capable of managing well the development of bilateral relations, as long as the two sides focus on cooperation and properly address differences under the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.” The messaging is carefully orchestrated to make us feel that New Zealand is on the right path, while the rest of its partners and especially its sole ally (Australia) have made a wrong turn.

But this officially benign framing of New Zealand-China relations in the face of obvious differences has more to do with the current Chinese leadership’s long-term strategic goals than with anything clever the New Zealand Government has done. For the PRC, New Zealand has never been more than a pawn in a much bigger, longer, strategic game, and despite recent shifts in the framing of the bilateral relationship from Ardern and Mahuta, the Chinese leadership still appears to see potential to fulfil its ambitions in New Zealand that might be put in jeopardy were it to adopt a more forceful diplomatic approach.

New Zealand elites continually lament the risk of this country’s perceived trade dependence on China, though in fact 70 percent of New Zealand’s export trade is with the rest of the world. From Beijing’s perspective these trade links with New Zealand are of minimal importance economically, yet they are strategically significant for the cultivation of the New Zealand business and political elite, who can be motivated to act in accordance with PRC interests for potential economic gain. The CCP government’s ongoing economic pressure and war of words against Australia are also a useful means of intimidating New Zealand political elites into a sense of hopelessness and inevitability about a future China-dominated order. One local academic even recently recommended that the New Zealand Government should follow a “smart appeasement” strategy in its foreign policy with China and other great powers.

The CCP leadership continues to claim New Zealand can be a model to other Western countries, even as the Ardern government has started to speak its mind on China more openly. Without a list of demands like the one dished out to Australia last year, we can only extrapolate what further gains the PRC would see in a model relationship with New Zealand by observing recent events in other small countries over which the PRC has leverage:

– a showpiece of good bilateral relations that can be presented to PRC citizens as evidence that the trajectory of foreign policy under Xi is correct;

– a country that gives port access to PLA naval ships and does not use its close relationships with its neighbours to impede PRC expansion into the Pacific, or its geographical position to prevent the same into the Antarctic;

– or even a cooperative partner along the lines of Cambodia, Hungary, or Serbia, in which the political elites apparently accept and praise totalitarian rule as an acceptable alternative to democratic systems.

For New Zealand, openly joining other countries in efforts to constrain the activities of Xi Jinping’s totalitarian state is an effective long-term insurance against ending up in such a situation. Rest assured, once the PRC is in a position to force New Zealand into silence or worse still, into vociferous support of its activities at home and abroad, it will use its power to do so, and that will be the end of New Zealand’s proclaimed “independent foreign policy”.