Bryce Edwards: Ardern’s China trip successful but over-hyped

Bryce Edwards: Ardern’s China trip successful but over-hyped

News reports on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s quick trip to China yesterday would suggest that it’s all been a triumph, and the New Zealand-China relationship is in good health. Digging a bit deeper, however, shows that things are much less rosy than some are letting on.


There’s no doubt that Ardern’s trip was a success. It was set up as a symbolic and straightforward whirlwind diplomatic excursion from which no great substance was expected to emerge. Instead, it allowed the Government to reach out to both the Chinese Government as well as the New Zealand public and say “everything is fine”. This much has all been achieved: mission accomplished.


But the bar was set quite low. As Audrey Young says today, “It was a mission made for success, the more so because it was only one day. It sent the clear signal to the Chinese leadership that Ardern really, really wanted to get there” – see: Was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s 24 hours in China worth it?.


Young draws attention to the effort that Ardern went to in order to impress the Chinese: “That fact that Ardern brought partner Clarke Gayford with her – the first time they have left New Zealand together without baby Neve – was an added level of commitment when such gestures carry meaning.”


Like other political journalists, Young pronounces the PM’s trip a success: “Having endured a winter of discontent from China over irritants last year, there appears to be a fresh commitment from both sides for a new phase of growth… So was it worth it, just for one day? Undoubtedly.”


Similarly, Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien says Ardern made a big impact, which is especially notable given she was only there for less than a day: “She was originally supposed to be here for a week, but I think she’s achieved in the 12 hours that she was on the ground in Beijing what she could have with that original itinerary” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s China trip ‘quality over quantity’.


But clearly, not everything is fine. The whole trip had been delayed for many months because Beijing was angry and upset with Wellington. A number of opaque but highly significant messages had been sent to New Zealand over this. While some trade and diplomatic cheerleaders, as well as the Government, have attempted to present it as otherwise, Wellington insiders have been adamant that the relationship was highly strained.


This meant that Ardern had to plan her trip quickly when the Chinese Government were suddenly open to a visit in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks. And despite the Prime Minister’s presence being required in this country at the moment, she decided it was worth making the dash in order to try to seize back the narrative over the relationship.


These issues were covered well by Barry Soper, prior to the Ardern’s departure for China, with him explaining that it would be naïve to disregard the signs of Chinese unhappiness – see: What Jacinda Ardern’s trip to China will achieve.


Here’s Soper’s key point: “The delay in Jacinda Ardern taking up her withheld invitation to visit the Chinese capital and the delay in the Chinese tourism launch in Wellington, was more than just scheduling. To even publicly suggest that is in itself seen here as insulting, as though the Chinese, meticulous when it comes to planning, are somehow incompetent when it comes to following through. The Chinese were sending us a message and we should have taken it on the diplomatic chin.”


Soper also explains that although the visit didn’t have many tangible outcomes, it was symbolically important: “The meeting in the Chinese capital today, on a trip that’ll see the Prime Minister in the air for longer than she’ll be on the ground, won’t achieve much in terms delivering the goods which are a given anyway, but it’s the symbolism that counts. And like all damaged friendships, meeting the aggrieved on their home turf, is a start.”


But in a subsequent column today, Soper, laments the “meaningless” signing ceremony that took place between the two governments, describing it as “the obligatory signing of documents that are always brought out on these occasions to at least make it look as though we’re making progress” – see: Bewildered in Beijing – Jacinda Ardern’s personal charm eases anxiety in China.


He also draws attention to the major discussion topic between the two governments: Huawei, and President Xi Jinping’s very pointed comment that “our two sides must trust each other”. Soper points out that “when it all comes down to it, distrust on our side of Huawei is what it’s all about and of course the Chinese know it.”


The notion that the decision-making process about the Huawei “ban” is made entirely by the GCSB officials without any influence from the politicians or Five Eyes partners was pushed strongly by Ardern in her meetings with the Chinese politicians.


But according to Soper, such an idea would be dismissed by the Chinese: “To the Communist leaders it’s unthinkable that an arm of the government, and not just any arm, its leading spy arm, makes decisions independent of the politicians. And of course the Chinese are right. A spy agency taking a decision which could have a significant impact on the economy and end up affecting the wellbeing of the very people this government claims it cares more about than anything else, is unthinkable, not just to the Communists but to most people who believe it’s a government’s job to govern.”


The PM’s lines on Huawei are also examined today by Richard Harman in his post-trip evaluation, saying that “she repeats a sort of mantra that the decision is for the GCSB alone under the Telecommunications Interceptions and Capability legislation. This, however, glosses over the opportunity that the GCSB has under the legislation to refer the decision to their Minister (Andrew Little) which means that the whole issue has the potential to become political” – see: China: it’s a matter of trust.


Although Harman sees the trip as a success, he also emphasises the Chinese President’s comments about “trust” being a pointed statement. And he identifies hurdles in Ardern’s search for an upgrade of the free trade agreement with China: “China is said to be wanting more access for investment in New Zealand. That will be difficult for the current coalition government to agree to. Asked about it at her press conference, her reply was opaque.”


And as an indication of how the China-NZ relationship is still strained, Harman relays: “there was no joint press conferences with either the Premier and the President which foreign journalists said China usually agrees to with particular friends.”


In his pre-trip analysis of Ardern’s tasks in Beijing, Harman argued that Ardern is now re-asserting herself over Winston Peters on this crucial foreign affairs area. Previously the foreign minister had been pushing New Zealand much closer diplomatically and strategically towards the United States, and was more critical of China and its trade and military expansionism. Ardern, in contrast, is now re-embracing China, toning down criticisms, and displaying more enthusiasm for that country’s much-vaunted Belt and Road initiative – see: Ardern in China: the big test.


On the issue of whether the New Zealand Government is being pressured by Five Eyes concerns about Huawei, Stacey Kirk asserts that “it’s an entirely domestic decision” – see: Rushed but not hurried: Jacinda Ardern makes most of single-day visit to China.


In this article, Kirk also puts forward what is essentially the official line on China-NZ relations and Ardern’s trip, lamenting the “the overblown angst at the state of the relationship emanating from some commentators a few months ago”, and she suggests that New Zealand’s changing relationship with China is simply due to other factors in the global environment, such as the growing US-China rivalry.


In terms of the Beijing trip, Kirk argues that Ardern has gone there, rather heroically, to “look for new ways to strengthen the relationship, but explain New Zealand’s position on matters of concern, and respectfully, not give an inch.” In conclusion, Kirk argues that New Zealand’s reputation for foreign policy independence has been reinforced by the PM’s trip: “On that, Ardern left little doubt.”


Indeed, Kirk praises Ardern for winning some tangible outcomes from the trip, even if they are “far harder to measure in terms of the deals signed and pretty words”. One of the biggest achievements for Ardern, according to Kirk, is that “Ardern’s proactive diplomacy” has ensured that when the final decision against Huawei is made by the Government, “it will have hopefully blunted the delivery” of China’s economic repercussions.


But just in case the public has any unreasonable expectations that NZ-China relations have been fixed, Kirk insists that “No-one expected Rome to be built in a day”, and that it would be unrealistic to “expect a return to the Halcyon days” of 2008 when the free trade agreement was signed.


The other major question about Ardern’s visit has been whether she would make a stand behalf of the Uighur Muslims who are being persecuted in the Xinjiang region of China. There has been pressure on Ardern to both speak out and to keep quiet, and this is best covered by Zane Small’s Jacinda Ardern’s balancing act: Appeasing China while standing up for Muslims.


Finally, for an indication of the strained relationship that this Government has with China, Newshub’s Tova O’Brien has been researching how many official government trips have been taken by the Labour-led Government compared to the previous National Government – see: Sharp decline in official trips to China since Labour took power.