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NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese president Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in 2019. (Photo: Kenzaburo Fukuhara – Pool/Getty Images)
NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese president Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in 2019. (Photo: Kenzaburo Fukuhara – Pool/Getty Images)

PoliticsJune 2, 2022

China ramps up rhetoric, warning NZ it could ‘lose at both ends’ after Biden-Ardern talks

NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese president Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in 2019. (Photo: Kenzaburo Fukuhara – Pool/Getty Images)
NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese president Xi Jinping meet in Beijing in 2019. (Photo: Kenzaburo Fukuhara – Pool/Getty Images)

In what one expert calls a ‘warning shot at New Zealand’, a Beijing media mouthpiece condemns Jacinda Ardern for following Australia’s path and signing up to ‘gangster logic’.

Beijing has ramped up the rhetoric following the meeting between Joe Biden and Jacinda Ardern at the White House, issuing a warning via its media mouthpiece that New Zealand risks “giving up its previous political wisdom”, following the lead of Australia by “messing up ties with Beijing” and losing “the Chinese market”. If it relied on the US to fill the gap, the Global Times editorial asserted, “New Zealand may lose at both ends eventually”.

The editorial and accompanying commentary come after the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson denounced the joint statement between the US and New Zealand. Zhào Lìjiān’s said the document “distorts and smears China’s normal cooperation with Pacific Island countries, deliberately hypes up the South China Sea issue, makes irresponsible remarks on and grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs including issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.” That was echoed in the Global Times commentary, which bemoaned that “New Zealand joined such campaign of smearing and demonising”.  

Of particular concern to Beijing is the characterisation of “China’s Pacific ambitions” and a passage which alludes to the potential for a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands, noting the countries “share a concern that the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national security concerns to both our countries.”

That amounted, said the Global Times, to “gangster logic”, which “suggests sovereign countries in the South Pacific Ocean have no right to sign agreements with other countries”, and imagines balance only in the terms of “US and Australia’s long-term hegemony and dominance in regional affairs. They take the South Pacific region as their own, untouchable sphere of influence and strongly oppose China-initiated programmes,” said the Global Times, in comments attributed to academic Xu Shanpin. 

On New Zealand specifically, it stepped up the rhetoric by referring directly to China-Australia relations, which has corroded dramatically over recent years. “Australia should serve as a vivid example for New Zealand,” the editorial warned. “Canberra messed up ties with Beijing. And the Chinese market it lost was almost in no time grasped by the US. If giving up its previous political wisdom, New Zealand may lose at both ends eventually. There have been various examples about how the US tricked and failed its allies.”

China’s involvement in the Pacific had prompted “a typical US response – stirring up trouble, driving a wedge by smearing China’s intention and choreographing a so-called security threat.” New Zealand had been “roped in by the US”, it said. “There is a transactional sense when [Ardern] parroted the US’s ‘security concerns’ in the Pacific region, as a way to trade for economic interests with such political echoes”.

In comments attributed to another academic, Chen Hong, it said: “Given that New Zealand has been trying hard to maintain its political independence with its own national interest as the guideline for its diplomatic and security policies, Washington seems to have found it a good timing to pull Wellington closer in its strategic orbit when New Zealand is trying to extricate itself from the economic slump.”

New Zealand was urged to preserve its “productive and mutually beneficial” relationship with China, which remains the country’s biggest export market – a reliance which has prompted senior government ministers to encourage diversification.

The rising rhetorical tone suggested China “believe that New Zealand is buckling under pressure to align itself with the US”, said Robert Patman, an international relations professor at the University of Otago. That was a misapprehension, “but China believes its chances of extending its sphere of influence over the Pacific Island states depends on depicting the United States and its allies as threatening the independence and sovereignty of those countries”. 

Through the foreign ministry statement and Global Times editorial “China is firing a warning shot at New Zealand”, said Patman. “For our part, we’re saying: if you insist on trying to impose yourself on the Pacific Island states, our position will converge with the United States, because we share fundamental values with the United States … We have a pragmatic relationship with China.”

Beijing should not be surprised, he said, that New Zealand “does not welcome China’s multilateral package which consists of linkage between economic aid and security assistance”.

As China continued to seek a stronger foothold in the Pacific, as evidenced in foreign minister Wang Yi’s partially successful eight-state, 10-day tour of the region, New Zealand needed to measure its response, said Patman. “What we can’t do is tell the Pacific states we know what’s best for them and we’re going to protect them from the ‘Chinese menace’. That would be an affront to sovereign states. What we have to do is give them options, so they can push back against China.”

There was one conspicuous and urgent opportunity to do that, he said. “An area where all Pacific Island states are really concerned is on the need to combat climate change. They need firm action from Australia, New Zealand and United States. That’s a life and death issue for them.”

It was condescending, however, to imagine that the Pacific nations were geopolitical “pawns”, he said. “Microstates with minimal resources are trying to maximise external support for their respective countries by plugging in to what’s on over … New Zealand has done that, too, to some extent.”

Speaking to TVNZ today, foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta cautioned against an overreaction. “China has been active in the Pacific for a very long time, and it’s really important that New Zealand retains its approach which is to be consistent, predictable, and respectful in the way that we work with China because our relationship has matured,” she said.

New Zealand did not take its relationship with Pacific nations for granted, she said. “We have a very different approach, and we are not defined by China and the way that they are conducting their relationship.”

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