New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and China's President Xi Jinping.
Opinion

It's time for New Zealand to heal our relationship with China

Opinion: Well, who didn’t see that coming?

New Zealand issues a joint statement with the Americans, and China is furious about it. And furious with us.  

The joint statement from Jacinda Ardern and Joe Biden spoke of our "shared concerns" about Beijing's influence in the Pacific.

New Zealand, as you know, is usually Switzerland when it comes to China and America, it's not an easy line to walk, but we have walked this line for some years now, and we've walked it well. 

And we are Switzerland for a very good reason. They are both important trading partners, although the Chinese are the most important. We are economically dependent on them, so why would we bite the hand that feeds us?

Our two-way trade exports with china are worth in excess of NZ$33 billion dollars, that's according to MFAT. China is our largest trading partner. 

And so this statement was ill-thought-through by Ardern and her advisors. I think we've been played by the Americans. They have a very challenging relationship with China and they have used us, and our relationship with China, to point score. The Americans have nothing to lose from this, but we do, and potentially we have. 

How have the Chinese responded? Pretty aggressively, actually. They haven't pulled any punches. They say that New Zealand is smearing and demonising China.

Usually, New Zealand would walk the diplomatic route. We're good at this. We send in our PM or our foreign minister, or our government entities who have strong existing trade and export relationships, and we do it in person. We hold true to our values, but we get around this sort of stuff with grace, and with our finest diplomats. 

We don't do it by standing in the oval office and firing off a statement that broadsides our biggest and most important trading partner. That was really foolish, and it smacks of a New Zealand government with little or no knowledge or experience in geopolitics. 

You may remember, this is one of the reasons Scott Morrison lost the election in Australia. 

In 2020, the Australian government said they wanted an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, and they banned Huawei from Australia's 5G rollout too. And Canberra also blocked 10 Chinese foreign investment deals as well, and so it went on. And they did it all quite brutally and quite publicly. Diplomacy is not, perhaps, a strong suit of the Australians. 

And how did China respond? They stopped imports of barley, beef, coal, copper and cotton. That's quite some economic response. The issue is ongoing. And that relationship is still troubled. 

And Western Australia, of course, is enormously reliant on china, not least because of all the iron ore coming out of there, and China's economic response really hurt W.A. So they voted Morrison out. 

Now, we know all of this. Our government knows this. They saw how China responded to Australia so why did we agree to this joint statement putting the boot into China?

New Zealand can still be critical of China, we just do it in our own space and in our own way. We can stay true to our values, but all the while understanding that culture and posturing and words matter. 

The Prime Minister's next international visit should be to China. The American talk shows are done, Harvard's behind her, she's sat in the oval office. Let's get around the table now with our largest economic partner. Because, as we've seen in the last 24 hours, we've got a bit of work to do on that relationship. And our economic well-being depends on it.