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China-New Zealand relations aren’t in crisis – no thanks to Winston

Pacific reset: Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images
New Zealand has a few problems with China, and vice versa. That’s undeniable. But, fortunately, even in this era of instant “viral” panic, there is still a considerable difference between how relationships are managed on TV’s Married at First Sight and in international diplomacy.

This seemed forgotten by some politicians, lobbyists and media last week, when it was widely speculated that Sino-Kiwi relations were in crisis.

Amid the panic, however, it became clear there was no Chinese vendetta against New Zealand, or even reliable evidence of a rift between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

China went out of its way to scotch suggestions of new retaliation. Far from snubbing ministers, it has invited Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker to its Belt and Road Initiative conference in April.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

That China moved so swiftly was, in some measure, reassuring. Bluntly, we have enough relationship difficulties already without anyone talking up more for political leverage. No one in the coalition Government kids themselves that the recent second postponement of Ardern’s state visit, and the stalled progress on an upgraded free-trade deal, are not retaliatory moves for one or several of our perceived transgressions.

China bridled at our last defence review calling it a threat to regional security. It remains adamant it doesn’t spy on other countries. It is dismayed that New Zealand remains on the fence over its Belt and Road Initiative and may also resent the recent broadening of our free-trade ambitions, including to prioritise a regional Asia-Pacific pact (RCEP), ideally including the massive – and growing – Indian market.

For our part, it would be pointless to deny that China’s past dumping practices contributed to the US-wrought global trade destabilisation. There’s cause for concern about some of its loan and aid practices in the Pacific. And, as Australia’s recent political cyber-infiltration shock underlines, there’s plenty of evidence foreign interests are a potential data-security threat.

Yet none of these issues has arisen suddenly, and it can’t be established they were exacerbated by this or any New Zealand Government. The National Party concedes it would have made the same decision on Huawei as the current Government: to act on the recommendation of the Government Communications Security Bureau to freeze, at least temporarily, the Chinese tech giant out of our 5G internet development.

Though superficially ominous, the recent decline in Chinese tourists and students here, and unsubstantiated claims of increased border hold-ups for our exports, cannot be reliably attributed to Chinese retaliation. Rather, China’s domestic economic downturn, improved English-language-teaching facilities and our new restrictions on foreign student working visas are known factors for the student and visitor fall-off. NZ Trade & Enterprise says it discerns no recent uptick in border issues for New Zealand companies. As for Air New Zealand’s flight being turned back for botched paperwork, it’s understood the airline itself made that decision.

The trouble is that the Government has, maladroitly, let an impression develop that Peters alone is skewing our foreign policy in a pro-US, anti-China direction. In reality, all the parties in the coalition Government believe the previous administration put us under too much obligation to China, and none of them contradicted Peters’ call in December for the US to do more to balance China’s Pacific activities.

Yet it’s understandable that sceptics and vested interests see this “Pacific reset” as Peters recklessly picking sides between the two superpowers. Peters’ contrariness and belligerence in the media feed the impression of a self-indulgent, China-baiting tear. His intemperate attack on former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, for supplying perfectly anodyne views on the Belt and Road Initiative to a Chinese newspaper, verged on a sacking offence.

It is unfortunate his theatrics obscure legitimate Government concerns about some of China’s Pacific activities. It’s asking not just the US but others with historic involvement to jointly fund new development schemes – though that does not mean, as some claim, that the Pacific reset is a stalking horse for ingratiation with the Trump Administration.

Amid the new, unconfirmed reports that Britain has cleared Huawei for its 5G development, it’s important for us all to remember that only by waiting for the facts and acting on the evidence can we avoid further needless drama and catastrophising of problems in this most important relationship.

This editorial was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.