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Chris Hipkins (Photo: Getty Images/The Spinoff)
Chris Hipkins (Photo: Getty Images/The Spinoff)

The BulletinJune 26, 2023

Hipkins’ crucial week in China

Chris Hipkins (Photo: Getty Images/The Spinoff)
Chris Hipkins (Photo: Getty Images/The Spinoff)

The focus is on trade and tourism, but the prime minister will also need to tread carefully on some diplomatic thin ice, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

In China, a massive show of NZ trade and cultural might

For the first time in four years, a New Zealand prime minister is visiting China. Chris Hipkins landed in Beijing overnight, accompanied by a “frankly huge business delegation” and Te Matatini champions Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, for a week of trade talks and a first meeting with president Xi Jinping, reports editor Madeleine Chapman, who is tagging along. Today’s itinerary includes a pōwhiri at the New Zealand embassy, and a “Showcase NZ” event to promote our travel, trade and education opportunities. Tomorrow Hipkins meets with Zhao Leji, Chairman of the National People’s Congress, and President Xi. On Wednesday there’s a meeting with Premier Li Qiang, Xi’s second in command, Thursday sees the delegation fly to Shanghai for more tourism and trade announcements, and on Friday they all fly home to New Zealand. Phew.

Trade, trade and more trade

So what’s it all meant to achieve? Hipkins has been clear that this is a trade mission first and foremost. “There’s not much more bread and butter about trade for a country like New Zealand. We are a trading nation,” he told reporters on Friday, prior to his departure. However Hipkins shouldn’t expect many “tangible wins” from the trip, says Sam Sachdeva, author of a new book on the China-NZ relationship. The week will be more about “vibes and photo ops” than “look, we’ve signed this new, shiny agreement”, he tells Toby Manhire on Gone By Lunchtime. But in China, vibes are supremely important, says former prime minister John Key. Both Chinese businesses and its population “take their instructions and the guidance from what the party in Beijing believes is correct”, Key tells the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan. When the president speaks well of New Zealand “that carries a lot of weight”.

A diplomatic tightrope

Beyond all the handshaking, the challenge for Hipkins will be to not be sucked into saying anything that can be used by Chinese state media to push “the Chinese line on things like [Australia-US-UK trilateral pact] Aukus, like Five Eyes”, says Sachdeva. Hipkins is the first of the Five Eyes leaders to visit China since the pandemic, notes the Herald’s Claire Trevett (paywalled), reflecting the deteriorating relations between the other Five Eye nations and China. The war in Ukraine is another sensitive subject that Hipkins might have to tiptoe around during his meeting with President Xi, especially given Putin’s weakened position following this weekend’s stunning attempted mutiny inside Russia. On top of all that, the Australian reported this weekend that foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta copped an “epic haranguing” by her counterpart Qin Gang during her own visit to Beijing in March. The dressing down came after Mahuta criticised Qin’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”, a combative and confrontational approach adopted by Chinese diplomats under the Xi administration.

Has China fallen out of love with Brand NZ?

The 29 strong business delegation accompanying Hipkins and his political team shows the importance of the trading relationship between the two countries. But is New Zealand putting too many eggs in the China basket? Calls for trade diversification are growing, reports Lucy Craymer of Reuters, driven by “fears the market could become more challenging if geopolitical challenges heat up” along with a “growing number of small companies that see markets in Australia and North America as offering better opportunities”. For those businesses already in China, it’s getting tougher to hold onto market share, writes Businesdesk’s Dileepa Foneska (paywalled). Gone are the days when NZ products were flying off the shelf – now “a cultural tilt towards patriotism and nationalism means Chinese consumers are starting to prefer domestic brands to foreign ones”.

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