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New Zealand-China 45th Anniversary Symposium – New Zealand’s Relationship with China: Past, Present and Future

Hosted by Confucius Institute at Victoria University and the Wellington Branch of New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. Supported by New Zealand China Council, New Zealand China Friendship Society and New Zealand China Trade Association

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On 5 December 2017, New Zealand-China related organisations collaborated to hold a symposium to reflect on the history of the relationship between the two countries, as well as to analyse its impact on New Zealand both in present and future. There was a particular focus on the role that the next generation of participants would play in further defining this relationship, in terms of its political, economic, and social dimensions.

There were a broad range of academics and professionals who spoke at the symposium, including Rt Hon Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, State-Owned Enterprises and Racing.


Michael Powles, former Ambassador to China and to the United Nations, and Senior Fellow, Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, was also a key speaker. Below is a transcript of his speech, titled Middle Years: The Relationship Deepens.

“Kia ora tatou. Greetings,

The point I’d like to make this morning is that a lesson from the “Middle Years” of the relationship between China and New Zealand is that as we now enter a new phase in the relationship, both countries need to develop new ways of engaging with each other.

My argument is that, unlike those Middle Years when the relationship was deepening, today it is a more mature relationship but one facing new and much more daunting challenges. This new situation, I suggest, requires new thinking and a new emphasis on some particular aspects of the relationship.

I arrived in China as New Zealand’s ambassador at the beginning of 1990. It was six months after Tiananmen and for my first few months that cast a shadow over the New Zealand view. But the development of the relationship soon picked up – New Zealand was the first western country to have a ministerial visit to China after Tiananmen and that was itself a matter of some criticism – that visit may also have been a comparatively early sign of a pragmatic determination to get on with China.

Indeed, from then on, it was full speed ahead for the relationship. China itself was changing at breakneck speed. I tell the story of a florist who used to sell flowers in our area of Beijing. At first he did so from his bicycle; and then three years later he and his family owned a chain of modern boutique florist shops around Beijing.

Deng Xiaoping paid his famous visit to southern China at this time. People quoted his “To get rich is glorious” exhortation. (Of course, not everything had changed – it took a few months for word of Deng’s comments in Guangzhou to be publicised in Beijing.)

Responding to Wellington’s wish to find ways of getting closer to this rapidly changing China, we recommended that a then relatively unknown leader (outside China) Zhu Rongji, who had just moved, in 1990, from Shanghai to be a Vice Premier, be invited to visit New Zealand.

I travelled with him. His first impressions of New Zealand were interesting. And one reminded me how quickly attitudes in China were changing. Zhu Rongji visited what was then the “New Zealand Dairy Board”, soon to be Fonterra. I asked the Vice Premier about his impressions of the Dairy Board. “Very interesting” he said, “But not really very valuable – too socialist for modern China.”

In China, the reforming economy and new prosperity, including the miracle of lifting several hundred millions out of poverty, was changing the face of the country. Changing it to something which, superficially at least, looked to us to be much more like western countries with which we were familiar.

Did that lead us to think that overall China was more like us than it really was? Possibly, and that could have led us to focus increasingly on similarities with China rather than the differences. That was fine – and natural – in promoting the bilateral relationship. But it certainly took the focus away from different perspectives on global and Asia Pacific geopolitics. Perhaps we assumed, at least subconsciously, that these would reduce over time. In any event, we seldom spent time weighing the significance for the future of continuing different perspectives.

I suggest we will need to do much better in tomorrow’s changing geopolitical landscape. Terence O’Brien has written perceptively about the challenge for New Zealand of adjusting to “political earthquakes” ahead. He argues that the current political landscape is undergoing seismic change and writes of China building the foundations of a “parallel order” internationally.

I don’t believe there can be any doubt that the international environment in which New Zealand will have to operate in the decades ahead will be enormously more difficult than the environment we’ve been used to. The facts pointing to China’s coming economic preponderance and the political power that will give it, regionally and globally, seem indisputable.

Nevertheless, a few observers seem to believe that if several other countries act together, under US leadership, China’s power could somehow be contained. I believe that they are simply ignoring clear facts. Perhaps there is an element of wishful thinking. “Past policies have been successful – let’s just continue them.” I’m reminded of the man who’s said to have jumped off the top of the Empire State Building in New York and to have been heard shouting, as he passed the 50th floor on his descent, “Fine, so far!”

I believe the effort being put into trying to contain or counter China will be worse than wasted. Logically, it can’t be successful beyond the short term. And focusing on it will detract effort from the critically important challenge of seeking to influence China as it exercises increasing regional and global power. China is unlikely to be influenced by advice from countries which seem intent on seeking to contain its growth or restrict its role as a great power.

Some observers suggest that a country in New Zealand’s situation, with strong relationships with both leading powers, could avoid having to make difficult choices. We should follow the advice in the Chinese saying and retreat to the mountain top and simply watch the two tigers fight down below. But what mountain top, and where?

And as one leading Australian scholar has written very recently about her country’s options, the time during which a choice remains open will be limited. She suggests it would be naïve to assume that China will indefinitely allow Australia to be critical and antagonistic while depending heavily on China economically. The same applies to New Zealand, probably in spades.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical landscape facing New Zealand grows daily more daunting.

On the one hand, we depend and will continue to depend on China for our prosperity. On the other, our traditional security partners, Australia and the United States, seem intent on trying to contain or restrict China, and press reports suggest they may be pressuring New Zealand to join them.

For obvious economic reasons and also some arguments of principle encapsulated in what we call our independent foreign policy and our support for multilateralism, there seems to be a sensible reluctance in New Zealand to join a bloc lining up against China.

I suggest instead our effort needs to be directed to developing the already strong relationship with China to increase the prospects for New Zealand to have influence with China as it wields increasing regional and global power.

Some will believe it wholly naïve to expect that little New Zealand could have any significant influence on a resurgent China. Possibly it is, but probably no more naïve than the expectation on the other side, so to speak, that countries like Australia and New Zealand can keep open indefinitely the option of deferring any decision choosing between China and the United States.

New Zealand has quite a long experience of being a small friend of a great power – first Great Britain and then the United States. We have found that it is sometimes possible to have some influence, relying on reason and persuasion. It’s never easy of course. I’ve sometimes said that an affliction for New Zealand diplomats can be sore knuckles – from repeatedly knocking on doors that are hard to open.

We have to be careful not to be too swayed by the flattery of major powers which might like New Zealand to be one more member of their “team”. And we have to remember, too, the likely fate of the mouse on the elephant’s back who commented to his large friend “My how this bridge quakes when we great creatures cross!”

I apologise for an apparent obsession with elephants and mice, but another thing New Zealand diplomats have learned is that whether elephants are fighting or frolicking, mice too close to them are still likely to be crushed.

Considering the bleak alternative of a confrontation which would be economically devastating and quite possibly lead to war, the possibility, even just a possibility, of having some influence with China in the future is something well worth doing all we can to achieve.

I can imagine some of our hard-boiled diplomats and the like wincing at the naivety of the argument that we could have some influence. But I think it would be more prudent to opt for that naivety, rather than the naivety of assuming we can find an isolated mountain-top on which to hide indefinitely from competing great powers. .

For a start, I suggest we need to develop a relationship which recognises openly the importance of both sides being able to discuss concerns respectfully but also frankly, using that word in its English rather than diplomatic sense. This is the key argument I’d like put to you.

There are several questions which many New Zealanders would like to explore in depth with China. One could be how President Xi Jinping’s announced determination to move China to centre stage globally, and in doing so to be more assertive than it has been in the past, will be likely to impact on us and our part of the world. And how, globally, these changes will impact on the current multilateral structure, not least the international rule of law and relevant legal institutions. Both of course being central to New Zealand’s foreign policy interests.

Another question which some New Zealanders would like to have discussed is the evidence of increasing authoritarianism domestically in China. A particular issue that has interested me is the plight of human rights lawyers, too many of whom are now in jail alongside their clients. This in no way diminishes the enormous achievement of China in lifting literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a remarkably short space of time. That is an extraordinary social and economic rights achievement.

But a country aspiring to global leadership which is known also for justice and fairness in the largest sense will more much readily attract widespread global support.

A separate area of interest involves the allegations in Australia and also in New Zealand too, of dubious efforts to influence the education sector and thereby young New Zealanders. The evidence cited in support of these allegations in New Zealand seems to me to be rather weak. It seems to assume, for example, that the institutions and organisations which are the targets of these efforts are completely compliant or passive. We know that that’s simply not so. But some of the questions asked do deserve answers.

A subject which could also be explored, because of its relevance to us and to the rest of the world, is the existence or not of a Chinese sense of national exceptionalism, and its possible implications for us. (As an aside on that, we needn’t necessarily be very alarmed given that we have gotten used to the extraordinary and, to most New Zealanders, almost incomprehensible American sense of their country’s exceptionalism.)

These are all issues on which we may need from time to time to make careful judgements for ourselves. If we were to make those judgements without first-hand engagement with the Chinese themselves, about their perceptions and motives, obviously we would risk coming to dubious conclusions

And from the Chinese point of view there will be sensitive questions to ask us – like how much weight to give to extraordinary comments by senior politicians about houses owned by people with “Chinese sounding names”. Is it relevant that this happened in a country like New Zealand which once had a poll tax on its Chinese citizens, and had a background of official racial discrimination against Chinese? Does this mean that there continues to be a visceral racism in New Zealand? Should Beijing’s attitude towards New Zealand be influenced by such questions?

While obviously the Chinese government would make up its own mind on such issues, I suggest it would be very much in New Zealand’s interests to be able to give our own perspectives direct to Beijing.

In a relationship in which such things can be regularly discussed, respectfully of course but definitely fully and comprehensively, both sides would benefit from being able to weigh not only their own observations and perceptions but also points or explanations made by the other.

I’ve already mentioned New Zealand’s experience in dealing with major powers, our awareness of the reality of New Zealand’s comparatively limited power and influence. But the record shows that within the extremely tight framework in which we have to exist, we have done reasonably well.

In short, the geopolitical earthquakes facing us today mean we need to find ways of doing more to increase our ability to influence Beijing.

There is already a practice of course of exchanging views on some sensitive subjects. I mentioned that I arrived in Beijing not long after Tiananmen and New Zealand’s views on that were conveyed several times, including to the then President of the Peoples Republic. Other human rights issues were discussed from time to time. And indeed I was instructed at one stage to visit Tibet to report on the situation there.

The kind of more deliberate discourse between the two governments which I suggest could be acknowledged by the two governments as a valuable, indeed a vital element in our relations. This would give it a higher priority in the relationship. Possibly it could be institutionalised, so long as that did not lead to frankness being replaced by formality.

The fact that such discussions were held, and were known to be held, would be valuable both for the bilateral relationship itself and in building public support for the relationship.

Acknowledging the importance of these sensitive discussions would make having the discussions easier. As a result, a relationship which, from our viewpoint is increasingly vital to our future, could be stronger and better able to survive the coming geopolitical earthquakes.”