A steady friendship: Liam Finnigan puts New Zealand's current relationship with China in perspective.

AuthorFinnigan, Liam

With two-way trade tripling over the last decade, reaching $30 billion in 2018, China is one of New Zealand's most important economic partners. High-level contact, trade and people-to-people links have steadily increased. Political rhetoric over recent decades tends to express mutual benefit and continued co-operation. The level of engagement between the two countries today is strong, despite prominent disagreements. Events over the last twelve months have called into question the future of New Zealand-China ties. Even so, considering the breadth of the relationship as a whole, current problems are unlikely to prevent prosperous interaction in the future.

In April 2019, Jacinda Ardern met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on her first state visit to China. The leaders pledged to continue negotiations on the current free trade agreement upgrade while reiterating joint commitment to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a term used since 2014 to describe the New Zealand-China relationship. Political rhetoric over recent decades tends to express mutual benefit and continued co-operation, with joint declarations such as this being fairly typical of the state of affairs between New Zealand and China. Yet despite the tremendous growth in political and economic contact, with countries as radically different as New Zealand and China it is hardly surprising that disagreements arise.

Notably, the prime minister's visit in April came after several months of uncertainty as to the future of New Zealand-China ties. Prominent examples of concern have been: government advice to block Chinese tech giant Huawei from the planned 5G network upgrade in late 2018, the delay of the 2019 New Zealand-China Year of Tourism, the return of an Air NZ flight bound for Shanghai and the Chinese government releasing travel warnings for its citizens heading to New Zealand. Since Ardern's visit, we have also seen her government express concerns with the Chinese consulate-general in Auckland over interference with freedom of speech on university campuses. The actions prompted China critic Professor Anne Marie Brady to argue that New Zealand's position towards China has adjusted in a way not seen since the Tiananmen Square massacre. (1) It seems those cautious of the New Zealand-China relationship have made their claims based on evidence-based reasoning.

However, when placing recent events in their historical context, there is unlikely to be any cause for concern about the future of New Zealand-China relations, nor has there been any adjustment in New Zealand's China strategy. Since the diplomatic relationship first began in 1972, leaders have spoken freely about what they have disagreed on while seeking areas of co-operation for mutual benefit. Considering China's rise on the world stage, and a trend of deepening interaction between our two countries in recent decades, this is pattern unlikely to change.


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