Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison meeting showed trans-Tasman relationship strong despite speculation - experts

International relations experts say Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison's Queenstown meeting was a clear demonstration the trans-Tasman relationship is strong, but whether we remain best mates is another question. 

The Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Australia met in person on Sunday and Monday for the first time since February last year when COVID-19 was just beginning its global march and was yet to send the two countries into strict lockdowns. 

Over the last 15 months, key differences between the countries have persisted, such as their leaders' attitudes towards deportations, while new issues have emerged, like the citizenship of accused terrorist Suhayra Aden.

But Monday's bilateral and the subsequent press conference was dominated by questions about China and whether there has been a split between the two countries in their approach to the Asian powerhouse. It's an issue that has been the subject of substantial commentary this year.

But any suggestion of a splintering was shut down by both Prime Ministers, with Morrison going as far as to say that those "who seek to divide us" won't succeed. 

International law expert Professor Alexander Gillespie from the University of Waikato told Newshub it appeared to be a "positive meeting". 

"A lot of countries are struggling right now over how they should be dealing to China… each country is working out how that will be," he said.

"I think this meeting is showing that New Zealand is completely in line with the Five Eyes and Australia is affirming that positioning as well."

However, Prof Gillespie said while Ardern and Morrison's united front show the two countries "seem to be sailing in the same direction now", the strength of the relationship and New Zealand's commitment to the Five Eyes won't be put to test until "the next problem with China arises". 

"We don't know what that is. That could be Taiwan, that could be another referral to the World Health Organization over the origins of COVID-19, it could be over something to do with Hong Kong," he told Newshub. 

"We just don't know where it is. It is at the next point, at the next hurdle, that we will really see how far New Zealand is aligned with the Five Eyes."

Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison meeting showed trans-Tasman relationship strong despite speculation - experts
Photo credit: Getty / The AM Show.

Jennifer Curtin, a professor in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland, told The AM Show on Tuesday morning that Ardern and Morrison were successful in showing they are in step. 

"That's the public perception they want to give and we know that probably a lot more went on behind closed doors," she said. 

"They are also projecting something to the world with this meeting. They are able to meet with no masks on, they are able to travel with no quarantine. It's a demonstration that the trans-Tasman relationship is not only strong, but that this part of the world is also open for some business at least between each other."

Prof Curtin doesn't believe there has been a dramatic deterioration in relations between the two countries over the China issue, noting that we have seen "these ebbs and flows" before.

"Families have struggles and then they get back together. I just wouldn't call us best mates anymore," she told The AM Show.

"For [Australia] it is the US. That is quite clear. [New Zealand] just likes to have a lot of mates rather than a bestie. We are playing a much more, I would probably call it a bit more of a subtle game, especially around China. We are not doing that really hard language of 'we are at war with China'."

Prof Gillespie said the "big standout event" of the last few days was New Zealand's decision to become a third-party to Australia and China's dispute at the World Trade Organization. 

"Even though we are not going necessarily in support of Australia, it is the correct thing to stand up for a rule-based international order. The most important point of this is that we are being active. We are being vocal."

Newshub revealed on Saturday that New Zealand would be a party to the dispute, which Canberra called for after Beijing last year imposed 80 percent tariffs on Australian barley imports. 

That was largely seen as retaliation for Australia calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, but China accused Australia of dumping the product there below cost, hurting domestic producers. 

New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said Aotearoa is "participating in this dispute as a third party because it raises systemic issues of importance to the effective functioning of the multilateral rules-based trading system". 

A third party can make submissions to the panel and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says New Zealand participates as one "when we want to influence the interpretation and application of WTO agreements on matters that are also of direct interest to us". 

O'Connor said New Zealand wasn't asked to join as a third party.

"However, we have been a third party in over 60 WTO cases since 1995 and it's not unusual for us to join actions disputes when we see challenges to international trade rules," he told Newshub.