Thursday, June 29, 2023

Point of Order: Was the balancing act a mission impossible?

Having told the world Xi Jinping is not a dictator, it is not surprising PM Chris Hipkins was greeted warmly by the Chinese leader at their meeting in Beijing this week. It may be it does the trick and secures a boost for NZ exports to China.

Certainly NZ needs it, with the gap between the value of our imports and exports the widest it has been for three decades. Unless the deficit shrinks fairly rapidly, the international credit agencies could lower NZ’s sovereign credit rating.

While Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta is said to have been “harangued” when she visited Beijing earlier, there was even a hint of smile, though brief, when Hipkins shook hands with Xi.

NZ reporters on hand told their readers there was no sign of friction in the opening remarks the media were privy to, with Xi describing New Zealand as a “friend and partner” and the relationship one to which he was “always attaching a great deal of importance”.

Afterwards, Hipkins described the meeting as “warm… and incredibly constructive” and “an opportunity for relatively free-flowing dialogue on a range of issues where New Zealand and China have mutual interests”.

He hoped he had started to build a rapport with Xi, saying he “found him easy to speak to” and at no point was the conversation “adversarial”.

“The relationship between China and the US was discussed, the situation in Ukraine was discussed, the Pacific was discussed, human rights were discussed,” Hipkins said.

However, one of those most sensitive issues – human rights, and most notably would include treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – “wasn’t discussed in great depth”; rather New Zealand’s position on human rights was “referenced”.

“The economic relationship… was, by far, the biggest topic that we discussed, but we also discussed a broad range of international issues, including international relationships. So the Pacific, the US, Ukraine, all were discussed – I wasn’t keeping a stopwatch,” Hipkins told reporters.

The balancing act New Zealand constantly has to strike has been well-traversed, in the context of its Western allies and partners – one that was playing out in the Pacific.

Hipkins was also asked if he would echo Xi’s sentiment and call China a friend and partner.

“I would describe the relationship between New Zealand and China as an incredibly important one,” he said.

“We cooperate, we work together on areas where it’s in our interests to do that. We disagree from time to time, and we convey those disagreements.”

Asked again, he said he would certainly “describe it as a warm relationship and warm conversation”.

“It’s an international partnership… it’s a friendship because we are in regular dialogue and we work together on areas where we have mutual interests.”

He eventually said it “depends on the context, but yes, by and large”.

Hipkins reiterated the strong economic focus to the talks, with the borders in China and NZ now fully open and getting momentum behind their respective economies important to both countries.

For NZ, that was about boosting and diversifying trade, and getting the numbers of Chinese tourists and international students back up to pre-Covid levels, which will be the focus for the remaining days of the trade mission.

That old campaigner Richard Prebble in his weekly column in the NZ Herald neatly summed up the difficulty of the Hipkins’ mission.

“In travelling to Beijing he had to persuade President Xi that he has no greater friend. And then to travel to Lithuania and also persuade the Nato leaders’ summit that New Zealand is a reliable friend.

“The impossibility of the PM’s mission is illustrated by the question, does he agree with President Joe Biden that Xi is a dictator? If Chris Hipkins had said ‘yes’ he might as well have cancelled his trip to China. By saying ‘no’ he has raised concerns about NZ’s commitment to democratic values”.

Prebble ends his column “Let us all wish Hipkins success on his mission impossible. This mission will self-destruct on Saturday, October 14 at 7pm.”

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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