Opinion: NZ and China is business as usual, almost

Opinion: NZ and China is business as usual, almost
Photo credit: Getty Images.

OPINION: Talk of the apparent cooling in the NZ-China relationship has dominated discussion in recent weeks, propelling fears over the implications for the future of our economic relationship.

Several weeks ago, an Air New Zealand flight bound for Shanghai was forced by Chinese authorities to turn around after failing to remove a reference to Taiwan in the documentation.

Afterwards, the People's Republic of China (PRC) updated travel recommendations for NZ, raising potential security risks to Chinese tourists - the second largest group of visitors to NZ. Official state visits have been postponed due to "scheduling issues", including a delayed launch for the much-heralded NZ-China Year of Tourism.

This all comes after NZ's decision to exclude Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the country's proposed 5G network upgrade. Yet these tensions follow from 2017, when University of Canterbury academic Anne-Marie Brady drew attention to the Communist past of National MP Jian Yang, raising the possibility he was a double agent for the PRC.

Surely the Huawei decision dismissed any fear that there is any real political influence from China in the NZ system - yet now concerns in NZ are focused over the future of the relationship, rather than any undue interference.

Although the government has withdrawn somewhat on the Huawei decision after the UK announced potential security concerns could be mitigated, speculators claim these events as deliberate retaliation from the PRC.

Following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada at the request of US officials, NZ's involvement has been perceived as collaboration of the Five Eyes in opposition to China.

Yet this Cold War-esque alliance overestimates NZ's commitment to its Five Eyes associates. Britain, whom NZ almost exclusively relied on as an export market, joined the European Economy Community in 1973, limiting future access for NZ products. The NZ-US military alliance dismantled the next decade over opposition to NZ's anti-nuclear policy.

France bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, killing one civilian. Though France is not a current Five Eyes member, Australia, the US and Britain all claimed indifference to the incident. NZ could not rely on its traditional partners as it once had unless we were doing as we were told. Talk of a western union against China has no precedence decades after its dismantling.

Recent events also underestimate our relationship with China, one which has been built on voicing protest and concern while finding mutually beneficial avenues to cooperate. From 1997 the two began a trend of "firsts" with NZ supporting China's international integration and China reciprocating with favourable economic agreements.

This led to the 2008 FTA, with two-way trade tripling over the last decade. Another "first" came in the need for an upgraded agreement, currently in negotiation. Positive engagement, however, has always been overshadowed by conflicting values. From recognition in 1972, NZ leaders were voicing concerns over human rights, nuclear weapons testing and Chinese support for communist insurgencies. 

Anti-nuclear sentiment was the crux of Robert Muldoon's conversation with Mao Zedong in 1976, yet they bonded over joint antipathy to the USSR. NZ was not absent from international condemnation after the Tiananmen crackdown, joining in imposing economic and political sanctions. However, NZ was the first western nation to re-establish high-level ministerial visits.

Similarly, Helen Clark's Labour Government voiced extreme protest against human rights violations in Tibet. Foreign Minister Phil Goff accepted an invitation to the region, which likely saw his concerns of human rights violations confirmed rather than appeased. Labour continued pursuing the FTA regardless.

In all these situations New Zealand and China have clashed on major issues and New Zealand leaders have actively protested. China has been receptive to vocal opposition and the two countries continued to work together. Notable differences and voicing concerns are a common occurrence in the NZ-China relationship, yet they are of secondary importance to closer political and economic ties.

While recent events are not positive, it follows a trend of open and honest dialogue that naturally arises from countries as vastly different as NZ and China. There hasn't been any discussion that trade is reducing, or the FTA upgrade is stalled. If history has anything to say, we will continue on to the next thing soon enough.

Liam Finnigan is a masters student of international relations at the University of Auckland.

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