Will a Big Election Win for Ardern Reshape New Zealand’s China Policy?

World Politics Review, 01.10.2020
Philip Crowe, ex investigador parlamentario británico y periodista independiente 

Political scientist Ian Bremmer remarked in a Twitter post in July that the relationship between the United States and China has “way too much (mostly economic) interdependence” for there to be a new Cold War. Instead, he posited:

It’s a failed marriage with the family still living together. How the kids turn out is an open question.”

The “kids” in this analogy are the small and mid-sized open economies of the Asia-Pacific—countries that depend as much on the U.S. for technology and national security as they do on China to buy their exports. A prime example is New Zealand, which is as close diplomatically to the West as it is economically to China. With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expected to win reelection by a landslide in elections scheduled for later this month, her administration will have some important decisions to make about its policy toward China.

Polling for the Oct. 17 general election, which was delayed last month due to the coronavirus pandemic, currently has Ardern’s Labour Party at 48 percent, with the center-right opposition National Party at 31 percent. Labour currently governs in coalition with the nationalist New Zealand First party, but the latest polling shows that Labour is likely to win an outright single-party majority in Parliament, which would be the first such victory by any party in New Zealand in over 20 years. Such a commanding win could allow Ardern to craft an updated China strategy—one that reflects recent tensions between China and Western developed nations, but also accounts for the importance of New Zealand’s economic ties with Beijing.

China will closely follow Ardern’s moves, as will Washington and its allies. New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, alongside the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia. This arrangement allows a level of intelligence-sharing and security cooperation that is arguably unmatched in the rest of the world. Effective participation in Five Eyes is a symbol of the strong political and diplomatic partnerships that New Zealand maintains with the other four members.

While its relations with the Five Eyes countries are paramount for New Zealand’s national security, China is its most important economic partner by far. Recent figures from New Zealand’s government show that China has been its top trading partner since 2017. New Zealand’s exports to China were worth roughly $13.2 billion in 2019, or 23 percent of its total for the year.

The need to preserve those commercial ties could influence Ardern’s approach to China in her second term. As prime minister, she has been willing to exert some limited diplomatic pressure on China over human rights issues. In July, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over Beijing’s decision to impose a draconian national security law that severely curtailed the territory’s autonomy. And Ardern has publicly raised China’s treatment of its Uighur ethnic minority, over a million of whom are forcibly incarcerated in what Beijing euphemistically calls “reeducation camps.”

These are soft diplomatic moves, but not insignificant, as China values public opinion and tends to react strongly to even the mildest criticism. This summer, Australia invoked the ire of China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats when it supported an independent investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus. Beijing responded by imposing hefty sanctions on agricultural imports from Australia. In meetings with their American counterparts in July, Australian officials confirmed that they have “no intention of injuring” their relationship with China further, and refused to commit to participating in so-called “freedom of navigation exercises” in the South China Sea, which challenge Beijing’s expansive territorial claims. Ardern is likely to view this as an important case study in how to walk a line between its relations with China and its Western allies.

That balance will be crucial for New Zealand, as it targets an export-led recovery from the economic damage of COVID-19, the strategy for which was launched in June 2020 and includes “refreshing key trade relationships” as one of its three pillars. Ardern will likely seek to further develop the beneficial economic relationship with China; her trade minister, David Parker, recently stated that New Zealand would view favorably a Chinese application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal once known as the TPP that includes New Zealand and 10 other Pacific Rim countries.

But there are limits to deepening economic cooperation. Ardern’s government has, for example, taken a careful approach toward Huawei, the Chinese technology giant that the U.S. views as a national security threat. While Australia has banned Huawei’s involvement in its 5G network infrastructure, New Zealand has avoided such a move, instead opting for a case-by-case approach. In reality, though, no providers in New Zealand are currently using Huawei in their networks; an application by the Spark network to do so was blocked by New Zealand authorities in 2018. This reflects Ardern’s desire to not be viewed as compromised within Five Eyes, while still preserving opportunities for closer trade and investment ties with China in other areas.

Ardern’s cautious approach is not without its critics. Last year, a Labour MP publicly claimed that the rival National Party was better at handling relations with China, remarks that Labour was quick to dismiss. The National Party is widely perceived as closer to China, but it has also been affected by China-related scandals. In 2017, Jian Yang, a veteran National MP who is retiring this year, caused a stir when he admitted to teaching at a training school for Chinese spies.

There has also been increased scrutiny in New Zealand of alleged Chinese political interference and influence, with some commentators raising concerns about some National Party members’ close ties with Chinese businesses. Ardern’s government has already moved to curb foreign financial influence in New Zealand’s electoral process, including a ban last December on foreign donations to political parties. It would not be surprising to see her next government pursue stronger measures designed to clamp down on foreign interference, such as tighter rules on lobbying, enhanced security vetting for prospective parliamentary candidates and greater alignment between the central and local governments to combat foreign influence at the local level.

Ardern has stated that New Zealand’s foreign policy will be “informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand interests.” As a small but strategically located trading nation in a globalized world, New Zealand’s next steps will inevitably require a further expansion of economic ties with key partners like China, though without undermining its diplomatic and security ties with other Five Eyes members. Ardern’s likely big win in this month’s election will give her a freer hand in some ways, but on trade and foreign policy, she will have to tread carefully.

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