NZ-China ‘scheduling issues’ cause for concern

The latest hint of a crack in New Zealand’s relationship with China has the Government scrambling to assure the public there’s nothing to see. But plausible deniability is often the name of the game for the Asian superpower, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Comment: The tourism relationship between New Zealand and China is a “special and enduring one”, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis said last October.

That was why the official 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism would be marked with a special event at Te Papa on February 20.

Just one problem: the event was quietly postponed - to an as yet unknown date - due to what Davis described as a “scheduling issue” on the Chinese side.

Coming on the heels of similarly nebulous scheduling issues which put paid to Jacinda Ardern’s plans to visit China before the end of 2018, it is difficult to shake the feeling that a point, however subtle, is being made.

Last year was particularly difficult for Ardern’s Government when it came to China.

Huawei decision a flashpoint

Pressed by some critics to take a harder line over alleged Chinese interference in New Zealand, it was accused by others of jeopardising the valuable trade relationship through hawkish stances on defence and security issues.

In particular, the GCSB’s decision to block Huawei from a role in New Zealand’s 5G network due to security issues - part of a wider backlash against the Chinese telecommunications company - looms as the most likely factor in any chilling of bilateral relations.

National has been quick to make the most of the perceived problems, with Simon Bridges holding Ardern and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters responsible for what he deemed to be a “steadily deteriorating relationship”.

Predictably, Ardern insisted things were not that dire, dismissing the suggestion of an ulterior motive from China in delaying the tourism event.

“We’ve been given the reason, I need to take that at face value - it’s not for me to second-guess that.”

Plausible deniability

The problem is that China has a history of operating with plausible deniability when it comes to meting out punishments.

China blocked salmon imports from Norway for several years, citing supposed food safety concerns, after imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, while the Philippines ran into similar blocks on tropical fruit exports following the South China Sea dispute.

One observer noted that blowback often begins with tourism numbers, moving onto international education before spreading to the wider trade and economic relationship - a script into which the postponement of the Year of Tourism launch sits uneasily.

Of course, National has first-hand experience of China’s approach.

In 2016, officials under the last government braced for possible trade retaliations over an investigation into alleged steel dumping in New Zealand by Chinese companies.

Shortly after the news broke, Zespri found itself subject to tighter controls on kiwifruit imports into China - supposedly due to a biosecurity issue detected during a “routine inspection”.

National’s foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay, the trade minister at the time, found himself in the gun for downplaying the threat, with Labour calling for his head and accusing him of “head in the sand diplomacy”.

That was perhaps why he offered little support for Ardern on Tuesday, saying it was not the opposition’s job to have sympathy for the Government.

Todd McClay suffered his own difficulties in the China relationship - would National be in any better a position than Labour if it was in government? Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Yet it is hard to see how a National-led government would have found itself in a markedly different position, given the difficult decisions to be made over Huawei and China’s activities in the Pacific.

China has also become increasingly assertive on the world stage, an approach National had the luxury of avoiding for most of its time in government.

Bridges and McClay insist their criticism does not mean New Zealand should bow to China’s demands, instead focusing on Peters’ supposed hot-headedness on the Belt and Road Initiative and other sensitive topics.

The New Zealand First leader can sometimes go further than he should, but it’s hard to believe that it is his words, rather than the substantive decisions on Huawei and other issues, that are really causing offence.

The relationship may not be as dire as National is claiming - but there are certainly some issues which need to be resolved.

That will make it difficult for the Government to ease the tensions, given the position of our Five Eyes partners and other allies against Huawei.

Where things go from here is unclear: while Ardern says officials are still working on dates for a Beijing visit, there is a sense from some foreign affairs watchers that the delay at China’s end is directly related to other strains on the relationship.

The nature of China’s interventions means people will be on edge for any perceived slight, real or otherwise: some have questioned the fate of a trip to Beijing by Davis and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta which had supposedly been pencilled in for early March (both ministers’ offices say a firm date has never been set down, with discussions still underway).

The relationship may not be as dire as National is claiming - but there are certainly some issues which need to be resolved.

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