There hasn’t been much, if anything, here over the last year or so on the (successive) New Zealand governments’ subservient and fearful relationship with the Peoples’ Republic of China. For some months I’ve had sitting on my pile to write about two books on the wider PRC issues (Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Olberg, and Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy, a collection of papers including Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper on New Zealand). Perhaps one day.
But yesterday we had the first speech on the New Zealand/PRC relationship from our (relatively) new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta. There was no reason to suppose it would be anything other than dreadful. Mahuta’s only other on-the-record speech as foreign minister had been a largely unserious word-salad of little substance. Her track record on the PRC has been dreadful, right since her first (perhaps mis-spoken) substantive TV interview in the role in which she loftily declared that she “knew” the PRC valued diversity, through the persistent reluctance to say anything much if at all possible – and then apparently as late as possible – on the growing catalogue of PRC abuses and threats. Oh, and of course the speech was being given to the New Zealand China Council, the propaganda and apologist body set up by the previous government (and substantially taxpayer funded, with key government officials directly involved). The Council has never so much as uttered a word of criticism of the PRC and its chair and former Executive Director were often quite vocal in pushing back against the concerns expressed by people like Professor Brady. And, of course, if Mahuta has been bad, the Prime Minister – who will no doubt have cleared yesterday’s speech – has been even worse, utterly silent.
Nonetheless, I watched the livestream of yesterday’s speech and carefully read the full text. It really was dreadful, on multiple counts. And here I’m not even going to focus on such bizarre bits as this, from her introduction.
“I invoke the inspiration and guidance of the universe and the gods, I bestow a life-force upon this gathering.“
Is she both a polytheist and (claiming to be) a deity herself, to be “bestowing a life-force”, whatever that means?
Or her incomprehensible suggestion – having gone and on about “taniwha” – suggesting that “we [who?] share common taniwha with the Pacific”. Would any serious foreign minister from any serious country talk like this? Perhaps the goblins unite Europe?
And who knows what, if anything, she means by her suggestion of a foreign policy “founded in” the Treaty of Waitangi. Perhaps she has in mind it being okay if the PRC gets a few Taiwanese leaders to agree to cede sovereignty and then simply moves to annex the rest? Probably not, but it is just another example of the vacuousness – which, I suppose, must sound good to someone, but seems to be simply a deliberate distraction and an excuse of opting out and being unserious about the global challenges, notably those posed by the PRC.
My bigger concerns – the focus here – are around (a) the utter lack of any sign of a serious, transparent, framework for how the New Zealand government thinks about the PRC, and (b) the continuing signs, nonetheless, of some mix of deference, sheer cowardness, and indifference to what the PRC is doing to other free and democratic countries.
This was the first speech on the PRC relationship by a new foreign minister, delivered to a China-focused (well, more likely a dollar-focused) audience. And yet there were no thoughts on the nature of the PRC challenge – none, not even to suggest, say, that the government thought everything was just rosy and the PRC’s intentions were entirely benign. There was no structured or systematic engagement with the rise of China, in any dimension whatever, just the odd passing allusion to this or that (really amounting to little more than “China is big”), There was no engagement at all with the literature on PRC interference/influence – this in a country with a figure closely linked to the PRC/CCP faces electoral donations criminal charges this year – nothing on China and the international agencies, nothing on China and the South China Sea (or the East China Sea for that matter), nothing on the PRC reach into (and intimidation of) ethnic Chinese communities in other countries, nothing on the history and experience of economic coercion. Just nothing, no framework, nothing. Either there is such a framework and the government just prefers to keep the public in the dark (the government that used to boast that it would be the most open and transparent ever), or – more likely – there isn’t one and the government’s entire approach amounts to saying and doing absolutely as little as possible, always aiming to keep on the right side of Beijing come what may, without totally alienating traditionally like-minded countries (perhaps not even that bothers them, but they probably worry that significant chunks of the public might worry if it become too clear how explicit the sellout was). Recall that this is the political party whose then president only a few years ago was lauding the PRC and Xi Jinping.
There might be reasonable debates to be had about how best to respond to the PRC threat, but without a proper analysis of the issues and risks there is no real leadership to any such debate. Of course, one can’t fit everything in a 20 minute ministerial speech, but the government has the full resources of MFAT at its disposal, and there is no sign of any serious engagement or analysis from them either. For an issue, and series of threats, of this magnitude, it is simply not good enough. In fact, it probably isn’t going too far to call it a betrayal of democracy and open government, when there really should be a wider public engagement on how New Zealand, and likeminded countries, should respond to the PRC. All, it appears, to keep a few exporting firms happy from month to month.
So if there was no serious analytical framework in the speech – and clearly it was the Minister’s intention not to provide one – what about what was there? I’ve seen some champions of the government suggesting there was really quite a lot (of good) there, just expressed very subtly. Seems to me that a better way of putting it is that there a few lines in the speech – drafted in ways likely to be minimally offensive to a Beijing (that would continue to prefer to keep New Zealand onside and drive wedges between it and other free and democratic countries) – designed for exactly that purpose, but signifying almost nothing. And there is much else that, while perhaps diplomatic boilerplate language, shouldn’t be being used of one of the most heinous consequential regimes on the planet (itself the sort of line an honest and courageous government might use).
Thus stepping through the speech we have pandering lines like
“As we approach the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations next year,”
Which is, of course, true of the Peoples’ Republic (well, the CCP’s Republic) but we were allies with pre-Communist China in both world wars.
Or this one, which I’ve seen suggested as significant
“This has been a journey. Today we acknowledge the interests we share. Equally we have become more alert to the values that differentiate us.”
Well, okay, I guess there is a first derivative in that second sentence, but what of it? The Minister won’t even name these values that differentiate us, let alone do anything about the difference.
This line has also garnered a few headlines
In thinking about long-term economic resilience we also understand that there is value in diversity. Just as the Council has noted, it is prudent not to put all eggs into a single basket. The New Zealand government will continue to work with business to pursue a range of trade opportunities.
As most of the media failed to report, the Minister was alluding to an utterly innocuous comment in the China Council’s own last Annual Report (you know it to be innocuous because nothing else gets in their Annual Reports). No country ever wants to have all the trade of its firms with those in a single other country – never has, never will. And that final sentence is really just a reminder of the fact that (for example) in the normal course of business New Zealand is currently negotiating preferential trade/investment agreements with the EU and with the UK. I’ll start to get interested when a minister says something like “if you deal in a country like the PRC you expose yourself to big risks with a regime unafraid to use trade as a coercive tool. If you get caught up in those you should go in with your eyes open, knowing that the New Zealand government isn’t here to help individual exporting firms, but the interests and values of wider New Zealand”.
Instead there were observations about the good relationship the Minister and Damien O’Connor had with their PRC counterparts – as if, in the current climate, this was a good thing. Neville Chamberlain seemed to like to think he had a good relationship with Hitler.
Then, of course, we get the line this government just loves to use – our allegedly shared commitments re climate change.
Beyond the regional agenda, many countries –including New Zealand – will continue to engage with China on climate change. The undertakings China has already made and its future actions, along with those of other big economies, will be hugely consequential.
As many others might note, in the unlikely event those “undertakings” are honoured.
She moves on to suggest that the New Zealand government “needs” to respect the values of the PRC/CCP? On what planet? One might well do to recognise what those “values” and priorities evidently are and engage the New Zealand public on what that means for us, but “respect them” Perhaps Ardern and Mahuta do? Most decent New Zealanders won’t. Forced organ transplants anyone? Compulsory sterilisations? Extreme repression of political and religious expression? The pre-eminence of the Party? You respect them if you must Ms Mahuta, but that tells us more about you.
And then we get another line that looks as though it was put in to be able to point to (“see, we did say something”).
And we look for a similar spirit of respect and engagement to be shown to all international friends and partners. As a significant power, the way that China treats its partners is important for us.
This is probably a very muted suggestion that perhaps using economic coercion on (what was) our closest friend and ally, Australia, isn’t really on (perhaps also that holding Canadian citizens hostage isn’t our preferred option either) but so what? It is so muted it isn’t going to offend Beijing (no one supposes they really think we are okay with that sort of thing) and it says nothing starkly, doesn’t openly stand us alongside likeminded countries being coerced by the PRC. (She never even takes the opportunity to cite the recent paper suggesting that overall economic effects of PRC coercion efforts on Australia have been minimal, at least to date).
Then we get back to more pandering.
In terms of whanaungatanga the Dragon and the Taniwha may share similar characteristics but they exist in very different environmental conditions. The perspective each holds about the “optimum” environment for survival such as a country’s political system, democratic institutions, freedoms and liberties can and have shown to be significantly different.
Different perspectives can be positive, and underpin cultural exchange and learning,
But some differences challenge New Zealand’s interests and values. There are some things on which New Zealand and China do not, cannot, and will not, agree.
While it is good to know that there are some things on which her government “cannot” agree with the PRC, isn’t it a trifle disconcerting that core aspects of our political systems are listed just before she just differences can be positive and implies we can learn from the PRC?
We then get the standard line – beloved of the previous government too – that
On many occasions New Zealand has raised issues privately with China.
Except that no one, probably including the Chinese, take this seriously. When they won’t openly state – for the New Zealand public that they supposedly represent – what they say to the PRC, we can assume it is mostly “well, General Secretary Xi, you know our people don’t much like some of the things you do, but we won’t say anything openly, and lets get down to the next trade facilitation agreement”.
They keep trying to pretend to us that the PRC is a normal country, a normal regime, not the most heinous consequential regime on the planet, with generally malevolent intent.
Towards the end of the speech Mahuta briefly mentions a few public comments
Sometimes we will therefore find it necessary to speak out publicly on issues, like we have on developments in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and cyber incidents.
But notice the feeble, almost neutral, framing even there – nothing about egregious abrogation of an international agreement, imprisonment of long-respected democratic figures, gross human rights abuses (which some of our international friends consider amount to “genocide’). Oh, and “cyber incidents”, not even attacks. (Although I will acknowledge that this comment ties China to cyber attacks more than I think the New Zealand government has previously done, but in a way so obscure designed for the public not to notice).
Of course, no mention of the things her government chooses not to comment on, such as the recent WHO report which she told us previously they couldn’t comment on because officials had not yet had the chance to study the report. Slow reading officials? Or a government and officials that prefer to look the other way? I think we all know which.
The final line that I’ve seen it suggested gave substance to the speech was this one
China can play a role in the long term economic recovery of the region but there is a substantial difference between financing loans and contributing to greater ODA investment in particular to the Pacific. We must move towards a more sustainable Pacific that respects Pacific sovereignties, and builds on Pacific peoples’ own capabilities, towards long-term resilience.
But there is nothing new in this whatever. As previous people have pointed out, we can never compete with the PRC in throwing money at the Pacific, but we do like to highlight that we give rather than lend (even though concessional loans often have a substantial grant element).
So that was what was in the speech. What there wasn’t was any mention of included:
- the recent imprisonment (or suspended sentences) for leading Hong Kong figures like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai (no statement from the government either)
- no mention of that WHO Covid report. Still unread?
- no mention of PRC interference in New Zealand, including the intimidation of resident ethnic Chinese people, or the attempts to silence Anne-Marie Brady,
- no mention of the growing international concern about the threat to Taiwan, or the current standoff involving the Philippines in the South China Sea,
- no mention of how New Zealanders might consider taking their own (boycott) actions against companies using forced labour in Xinjiang,
- nothing about the sanctions the PRC has been imposing on various western figures recently,
- nothing about her government’s refusal to put sanctions of key PRC XInjiang figures, or the government’s decisions to scrap the Autonomous Sanctions bill that was before Parliament
Perhaps there is a case to be made for the government’s stance on each of these issues. but Mahuta didn’t make those cases, preferring to pretend the issues didn’t exist. It really was shameful.
And if all that was bad then there was what she said afterwards in response to questions. For example, it is reported that she dealt with a question on the Uighur situation by answering only in Maori (that presumably few present would have understood) but which a local academic reports includes this egregious line
“It’s important that we keep our perspectives on the situation of indigenous peoples elsewhere, they have complex, different laws, different government systems,
The Minister also grabbed headlines for her remarks distancing New Zealand from the use of the Five Eyes group of countries in responding to the PRC, suggesting that her government preferred the Five Eyes stuck to intelligence and that they would often prefer to walk alone on the PRC. Personally, I don’t have a strong view on the Five Eyes label, but these are countries that we might normally think we’d have an affinity with on such issues (and several of them – notably Canada – have not been particularly robust on the PRC themselves). But we all know that the issue isn’t really the Five Eyes – much though much of the far-left in New Zealand would probably prefer we weren’t part of it at all – but the New Zealand government’s preference – Ardern and Mahuta – to say as little as possible as rarely as possible, and keep in Beijing’s good books as long as possible as much as possible, pretty much whatever the regime does. And that is despicable. It might be one thing to distinguish ourselves from the Five Eyes grouping if New Zealand were becoming a uniquely courageous country working with wider groups of courageous countries willing to call out the regime internationally and act against it at home and abroad. But that isn’t it. It is simply a cowardly, mercenary, and utterly short-sighted, stance.
Of course, if Mahuta and her boss are dreadful on these issues – and despicable isn’t really too strong a word – it shouldn’t pass without notice that no party in Parliament, not even any individual MP, is any better. If, just possibly, a few words may be a little better now than at times under the previous government, the nature of the issues and threats is starker now, and all parties – all MPs – have less excuse for their willed blindness, their refusal to exercise any moral leadership. Two of our MPs – one each from National and Labour – (were allowed to be) signed up for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, and occasionally they have signed on to joint statements with large groups of MPs from other countries. But that is it. Neither one has given interviews or speeches domestically differentiating themselves from the shameful New Zealand political and business consensus that (a) dollars come before everything, and (b) that if we appease today, and appease tomorrow well….who can worry about beyond that.
UPDATE: A commenter sagely observes that in our culture, in days gone by, we celebrated St George and the tale of him slaying the dragon.