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The dangers of over-reading the tea leaves on China

As commentary and speculation swirls around the state of NZ relations with China, it’s a good time to take a breath and focus instead on the way forward, writes Bethan Greener.

Commentary is swirling over Sino-Kiwi relations. Warnings to tourists, the turning back of an Air New Zealand plane from Shanghai, and New Zealand’s refusal to allow the telecommunications giant Huawei a role in the new 5G network all provide fodder for anxious speculation. The latest cab off the rank is the publishing of a commentary in praise of Xi Jinping and the Belt and Road Initiative in the China Daily bylined to former New Zealand prime minister Jenny Shipley – which we subsequently learned was based on comments she’d made to another newspaper last year. In such times of uncertainty we need to take a breath: to recognise that much current reporting is in fact speculation-based; to prioritise nuanced views that might quell any rising panic; and to pursue a principles-based foreign policy by which to navigate a path forward.

As University of Auckland China expert Stephen Noakes tweeted: “The hard truth of being a China-hand is that none of us really know anything”. Rob Ayson, from Victoria University, noted on the Spinoff that “we don’t know quite how big the New Zealand-China problem is. Nor do we know the relative importance of the several potential causes of that problem. We’re stuck in a room of many mirrors, trying to work out which reflection is genuine.” This admission of the limits of our information is an important public service.

Another important public service is valuing nuanced views. Jason Young from Victoria University, for example, has usefully noted that tales of Beijing would-be tourists cancelling their plans have only been relayed in English language papers issued by Chinese government sources, without equivalent stories in the Chinese language press, and that recent travel warnings issued by the Chinese government for those travelling to New Zealand don’t appear to be particularly new or different.

It is also helpful to clearly identify what little we do know and to sound out ideas for future action. Ayson helpfully identifies the verifiable fact (rather than those we are merely guessing at), and suggests some possible ways forward. These include providing more detail about why Huawei was rejected, creating “a sense of distance” from the US to be able to pursue an independent foreign policy, and that the prime minister and her Labour colleagues need to “assert greater influence on the way New Zealand talks about its foreign policy priorities” – including reframing the Pacific reset away from a focus on containing Chinese influence.

Beyond those, an enduring question to tackle is: how might we seek to navigate New Zealand’s diplomatic relationships, including with China, into the future?

Although we cannot control how other countries will respond, there is a neater framework for understanding how New Zealand might seek to pursue its diplomatic relations with other countries in such a way to avoid blanket condemnation or adulation: an emphasis on clearly articulated principles or values rather than a focus on specific relationships is the way to go.

This type of approach was already hinted at by early speeches by Jacinda Ardern and has been made more concrete by recent policy statements. A 2018 MFAT speech, for example, outlined seven principles for steering New Zealand’s engagement in the ‘Indo-Pacific’: openness, inclusivity, transparency, freedom of navigation and overflight, adherence to international law, respect for sovereignty and (in the case of regional architecture-building) ASEAN centrality.

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Against such a checklist foreign policy makers can measure how well the behaviour of any given entity aligns with such principles or values on any given issue. Once such principles are identified, censure or applause is doled out for particular policies, acts and behaviour rather than being directed wholesale. Diplomacy is “de-personalised”, loss of face deftly dodged. The 2018 Defence Statement demonstrates some of this approach at work. It praises China’s claimed commitment to tackling climate change whilst also noting concerns about China’s “views on human rights and freedom of information that stand in contrast to those that prevail in New Zealand”.

Disaggregated commentary on policy is particularly important when New Zealand is susceptible to demonstrating less comfort with newer partners while all too easily believing that traditional partners remain “like-minded” simply because of familiarity. For example, the suggestion that “China has a history of operating with plausible deniability when it comes to meting out punishments” implies that there is something particularly uniquely noteworthy about Chinese diplomacy. Yet “plausible deniability” is fairly standard diplomatic practice. When the Rainbow Warrior was bombed, New Zealand identified French agents as the perpetrators and began to pursue legal recourse. The French left New Zealand exports out in all weathers to rot at its ports, or tore open and ruined containers of goods, claiming illegal drug searches.

Key principles and values can act as stars to navigate by. That navigation can be further aided by a focused reporting of nuanced views and an admittance of what we don’t know. A foreign policy course charted by principles and values is, admittedly, difficult to hold in the face of economic or other pressures. But it also requires a useful degree of honesty about what sorts of behaviour New Zealand seeks to engage with and encourage in this world; an honesty that would help to bring to an end the current spate of foreign policy tea leaf reading.

Bethan Greener is associate professor in politics, Massey University


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