PM Jacinda Ardern meeting Chinese President Xi in China (Getty Images)

Actually, NZ has more leverage over China than we realise

Might PM Jacinda Ardern’s visit to Beijing have meant more to China than we in New Zealand realise? Former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret, who is currently visiting New Zealand, thinks we have misunderstood the importance of the trip. 

The recent tensions between China and New Zealand were almost always framed in terms of how the superpower could hurt the small island nation. But a visiting US expert believes New Zealand has far more leverage over China than we realise.

PM Jacinda Ardern made a brief visit to China earlier in the week, staying for a day to open New Zealand’s new embassy in Beijing. It followed increasing consternation over the lack of an invitation to visit for the whole 18 months of her tenure, when it had previously been standard for New Zealand PMs to visit China within their first year in office. There had also been recent wrangles over a tourism promotion event, and Huawei’s access to the New Zealand market to provide technology for the 5G network.

But the visit also followed the terrorist attack in Christchurch, and with that, a burst of positive global publicity for Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand. In contrast to other countries, where the narrative around the response has been one of increased fear and crackdowns, the response the global media reported from New Zealand was one of reconciliation.

John Pomfret is the former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, and has spent significant chunks of his life in China since first visiting in 1980. In that time, he’s experienced plenty of twists in a career as a foreign correspondent, including having a bomb in Bosnia go off outside his window, and being expelled from China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown for alleged links with protesters.

He has also seen sweeping changes in how China relates to the outside world. And right now, with China becoming increasingly authoritarian under the rule of President Xi Jinping, he believes China needs some positive press of the kind that a visit from PM Jacinda Ardern provided. John Pomfret spoke to The Spinoff about his impressions of where New Zealand fits into the global diplomatic order.

There’s something of a cold war bubbling away between the USA and China at the moment, and New Zealand obviously has links with both. From your perspective, which camp do you see New Zealand as being closer to?

That’s an interesting question, for a country like New Zealand which is the size of a medium sized Chinese city, and about 24% of your exports going to China. There’s a lot of Chinese tourism, and a lot of Chinese involvement in your education system with international students. So that’s on one side of the ledger – the basic reliance on the Chinese economy.

But the second issue of course is the alliance with the United States, and that’s been in place for decades. And things have actually become closer – we’ve gone past the nuclear related kerfuffle in the 70s and 80s. And I think there’s also reservations in policy making circles in New Zealand that you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And you have to maintain your values, and I think New Zealand in the wake of the tragedy in Christchurch is probably having a deeper understanding of what those values are, in the world where there’s a lot more crazy things than there used to be.

Your soft power is integral to your success as a developed economy – in terms of a multicultural, innovative and free society. In my conversations here, I have a sense that many people know that China is important to your future, but they’re beginning to understand that if you sell yourself short, and cut corners on values, you’re going to be in a hell of a pickle.

Well, speaking of those values, are they compatible with a Chinese government under President Xi, or in fact a US government under President Trump?

No, but as a result you have something to teach the world. There was a sense of PM Ardern going up to China, that she was going or should be going up there to bend the knee, because of Huawei or whatever – give something to the Chinese in exchange for allowing her to go up there for a day.

But you have to understand that also from the Chinese perspective, you have a rockstar prime minister right now. Her remarkable reaction to the Christchurch tragedy has given her a political leverage she might not fully understand, and I worry that the rest of New Zealand doesn’t understand she has. Her going to Beijing was also a present to the Chinese, because it does enormous benefit for their president to be standing next to this remarkable person, so soon after her country went through this tragedy. They want a piece of her pixie-dust. And that is of great reputational benefit to them.

On that front in particular, the attack was one on the Muslim community. And when New Zealand PMs go to China, there’s always a discussion of whether human human rights will be raised, and the issue at the moment is the million Uyghur Muslims in detention camps. Does the way New Zealand PMs raise these issues actually have any influence?

So I would say this – it’s water dripping on a stone. But you’ve got to drip that water on the stone, regardless of whether it’s one year, 500 years or 1000 years. You have to make the statement and maintain your values. And given the fact that the Christchurch attack was on the Muslim community, it gives the prime minister a chance to speak about the importance of embracing this kind of multiculturalism as the way forward.

But are we really being strong enough in how these concerns are expressed?

Even if you were a friend of China, you could look at the Xinjiang gulags as the sort of policy that will turn northwestern China into a kind of Palestine type situation. And that’s not going to be good for China. Doing this to so many Muslims could put a target on the back of almost every Chinese official overseas. Do you want to see car bombs in front of your embassies? So there’s a way to frame this as both a human rights argument, and also an argument in favour of multicultural society – which China is – but in a multicultural world you have to have flexible policies to embrace more people. And I think your PM and your society has a lot to teach the Chinese, even though you have something like 4.7 million people.

Recently though, China hasn’t seemed particularly happy with us here.

People have said New Zealand has effectively rejected Huawei, and that’s horrible and the Chinese will be mad. Well, two things to say about that. One, the Chinese are adults. So when they adopt a petulant tone and make threats, that’s because it has worked for them with other countries. I wouldn’t sweat it.

Secondly, New Zealand has another arrow in its quiver when dealing with the Chinese, and that is climate change.

How so?

Climate change is a huge issue in China, both in terms of reputation and investment. It’s also a huge issue in New Zealand as well, and it’s also an issue where New Zealand could be an important spokesperson on behalf of China, vis a vis the United States which has forgotten about climate change. And so it creates a potential synergy between your societies – China is interested in not just the nuts and bolts of achieving a green economy, but also the reputational leverage over the United States.

Is China’s push in this area – things like reforestation plans – are they more rhetoric or reality?

Well, there’s lots of different realities. Their electric vehicle push is huge – probably every major city in China has an electric vehicle factory, their production is through the roof. And one of the reasons they allowed Tesla in was because they’ve been having huge issues with battery technology, and they want to beg, borrow and steal those batteries.

But meanwhile in northern China carbon emissions have been going up, because they have to build more power plants in that area. Air quality in Beijing had improved for a few years, but now it’s getting worse again because factories that had been shut were reopened because of unemployment problems, and the potential for social unrest. So it’s a mixed picture, just as it’s a mixed picture in New Zealand – I don’t believe your carbon emissions are going down?

No, they aren’t.

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This is an area where partnership can be very useful for China politically, partnering with an ally of the United States on an issue that the US has abandoned. It gives China a wedge issue. It gives China an opportunity to gain back some reputational stuff that China has clearly lost with the Huawei issue.

That’s kind of my main point. New Zealand should understand that it has leverage in China, both in terms of soft power and through a commitment to climate change.

This interview has been edited slightly for length.


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