China and New Zealand at forty: what next? Michael Powles reflects on the evolving Sino-New Zealand relationship and suggests that skill will be needed in taking advantage of the opportunity it offers.

Author:Powles, Michael
 
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New Zealand has developed an enormously valuable relationship with China, resulting in the only free trade agreement China has concluded with a developed country. But China's growing global power makes our relationship less valuable to China. We need to find new areas of co-operation valuable to China. The new, first ever, joint China-New Zealand aid project announced recently in the Cook Islands is significant in this regard. And New Zealand needs to try to maintain a reputation for global independence, particularly as a friend rather than ally of either of the world's competing major powers.

Achieving a relationship with China as beneficial to New Zealand as the relationship we have today may be one of our most significant overseas achievements. New Zealand leaders tend to highlight the dramatic economic benefit it has brought New Zealand. They could point as well to the contribution ethnic Chinese have made to New Zealand's growth as a nation and the richness added by Chinese culture.

For their part, Chinese leaders point to New Zealand's value to China, particularly through the oft-quoted 'four firsts', reflecting New Zealand's support for China when it first sought membership of the World Trade Organisation, our recognition of China's status as a market economy, our entry into bilateral free trade negotiations and, finally, our being the first developed country to conclude a full free trade agreement with Beijing. And today access to New Zealand's primary products is clearly important.

But for how long is this mutually advantageous relationship likely to continue?

The world has changed since New Zealand promoted in 1997 Chinas membership of the WTO and demonstrated nearly a decade ago that a small Western country could handle a complex free trade negotiation with Beijing. China today is much more integrated into global systems and better able than it was to negotiate in its own right variations in the rules to suit its own interests.

Looking ahead, New Zealand will no doubt want to continue benefiting from a co-operative relationship with a prosperous and growing China. But will it still be worth Chinas while to co-operate with New Zealand? A more powerful China may have much less need of the kind of small country support it valued so highly a decade and more ago.

When political and international observers first began to notice the developing China/New Zealand relationship, the respected Hong Kong columnist Frank Ching, writing in the South China Morning Post in 2006, dubbed the two countries' The Odd Couple'. (1) To Ching, New Zealand's support for Chinas membership of the WTO was vitally important and led Beijing to agree to begin negotiations on a free trade...

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