Why Jacinda Ardern and Labour tread a careful path on China

NEW ZEALAND has sought a different relationship with China under Jacinda Ardern than the rest of the Five Eyes alliance.

China is New Zealand’s largest good trading partner, sending Beijing almost one-third of its exports.

While Jacinda Ardern has exerted New Zealand’s soft power to criticise China in recent months, it’s fair to say she is walking a diplomatic tightrope.

Professor Robert Patman, of the University of Otago, told Redaction Politics that New Zealand have been a reluctant critic of China in recent months.

He said: “Even though New Zealand eventually suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in late July 2020, it was the last to do so within the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance.

“The United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom suspended their extradition treaties during the first three weeks of the month, but New Zealand initially responded to the imposition of China’s new national security law in Hong Kong by committing itself to a review of the extradition treaty in the first half of July.”

Ardern called out China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority, for example, but did not support Australia’s calls for investigating the origins of coronavirus – seen by some as a move to pin all the blame of Beijing.

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“It remains to be seen whether New Zealand’s measured progressed towards a common Five Eyes position on Hong Kong’s extradiction treaty will spare it from Chinese retaliatory actions, but it is clear while Wellington shares many of the strategic concerns of its Five Eyes partners it reserves the right to express them in a distinctive fashion that is more typical of a minor power than a small state,” Professor Patman said.

China has been locked in a soft territorial battle over much of south-east Asia with NATO and its allies for years, with the South China Sea the hub of many land disputes.

Beijing is seen to be expanding its sphere of influence over the region – supplementing its One Belt, One Road initiative – putting Australia on the defensive.

As such, Ardern has to chart an independent foreign policy position which allows New Zealand to act unilaterally while still maintaining relations with NATO and China.

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Step up, the ‘Pacific Reset’. Launched in March 2018, New Zealand began to pour hundreds of millions into neighbouring territories.

As well as strengthening relations with Polynesian countries, the strategy also acted as a counter-balance to increasing Chinese expansion.

Professor Patman commented: “This would be increased over four years by NZ$714 million and the Reset also included theestablishment of fourteen new diplomatic and development posts and a significant increase of high level New Zealand diplomacy in the region. 

“While Winston Peters, the New Zealand Foreign Minister did not identify China by name in launching the Reset, his emphasis on regional coordinationwith Australia and his plea to the United States to step up its engagement in the South Pacific made it plain it was China’s growing regional role that was the most important reason for the Reset.”

New Zealand’s foreign policy strategy towards China has proven extremely delicate for Jacinda Ardern over the past three years. Cut off ties and the economy could go into freefall. Strengthen relations, and Wellington is accused of favouring Beijing over its NATO allies.

Even opposition leader Judith Collins hasn’t pressed the issue, labelling China both a friend and foe in a recent interview.

Ardern is likely to sweep the election this Sunday – but greater challenges await her second term in office.

Robert Patman is professor of politics and director of international studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. You can find his latest book, New Zealand and the World, here. For Professor Patman’s videos on New Zealand politics, you can find his Youtube channel here.


Featured Image: White House @ Flickr

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