The PRC and all that

In recent days, there has been quite a bit of coverage of issues around the New Zealand’s government’s approach to the PRC.

There was, for example, last week’s trailer for the Australian 60 Minutes piece on New Zealand and China, which excited a great deal of scorn (and coverage) for what was, after all, a teaser to get people to watch a longer programme. It wasn’t clear what riled people more – the (not new but) clever play on words suggestion about “New Xi-land”, quotes from Mike Hosking, or what but the “elite” reaction was quite remarkably hostile.

As it turned out the actual 60 Minutes programme (you can watch it here) as something of a damp squib. Sure there was the nauseating spectacle of Michael Barnett, Executive Director of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, talking of being “friends with benefits” with the PRC (complete with the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” nuance), and openly asserting that whatever the PRC did on the human rights was really its concern only, and not something for anyone else to worry about. Presumably he believes what he is saying, but not the harshest critic of the Jacinda Ardern or Judith Collins would suggest they held that view. And from the Australian perspective, the programme makers seemed to start with the line that the Australian economy was paying a high price for their government’s stand, while New Zealand was prospering…..but with not a shred of evidence examined for those claims. At a macro level, the two economies look very similar right now, with unemployment rates post-Covid now back down not too far from late 2019 levels (Australia possibly a touch closer than New Zealand). And some of the programme even seemed quite sympathetic to the common, but fallacious, view that somehow New Zealand is less able to take a stand, due to size or other unpersuasive reasons. There was, of course, the clip of the 60 Minutes journalist asking Ardern whether she ever held back in making comments on China because of fears about trade. She again claimed that she never did – and surely no one serious in Australia, New Zealand, or China believes her – but 60 Minutes made no effort to unpick that claim either (which, as I noted in a post recently, if true must then mean she is really almost entirely indifferent to, and has feel no serious moral unease about, what China does – and I don’t believe that either). There was nothing about the New Zealand government’s reluctance to call out PRC attempted economic coercion of Australia, nothing about its refusal to criticise the PRC for the arbitrary detention and recent secret trial of an Australian citizen. And, of course, nothing about how weak both main parties here are on issues like political donations or CCP-connected political figures.

Of somewhat more importance was the political theatre in Queenstown yesterday, culminating in a long and wordy communique, in which Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern were falling over themselves to suggest that there was no real difference between them when it came to China. Both had their reasons no doubt.

Here is what they had to say.

First, on “coercion”

37. The Prime Ministers affirmed their strong support for open rules-based trade that is based on market principles. They expressed concern over harmful economic coercion and agreed to work with partners to tackle security and economic challenges.

39. The Prime Ministers reiterated their shared commitment to support an Indo-Pacific region of sovereign, resilient and prosperous states, with robust regional institutions and strong respect for international rules and norms, and where sovereign states can pursue their interests free from coercion.

Those references to coercion were new (weren’t in last year’s communique) but notice how weak they are. The first reference (para 37) is not even in the “Indo-Pacific and Global security” section, and neither reference explicitly names the range of steps the PRC has taken against Australia. Since we can reasonably expect that Australia would have welcomed strong and explicit support, we can only assume that New Zealand wasn’t up for it. That reflects very poorly on the New Zealand government – most especially in a joint communique with the Australians. Senior figures in the US Adminstration have made (much) stronger statements than that, specifically about the Australian situation.

Then there was the South China Sea

42. The Prime Ministers expressed serious concern over developments in the South China Sea, including the continued militarisation of disputed features and an intensification of destabilising activities at sea. The Prime Ministers further underscored the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight. They emphasised that maritime zones must accord with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and called on all parties to respect and implement decisions rendered through UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanisms. The Prime Ministers reiterated the importance of the South China Sea Code of Conduct being consistent with international law, particularly UNCLOS; not prejudicing the rights and interests of third parties; and supporting existing, inclusive regional architecture.

Which seemed quite good. I hadn’t heard Ardern or Mahuta say anything at all about the South China Sea – it certainly wasn’t in the list of issues they mentioned in their respective recent China speeches – but it turns out most of this language was also in the previous communique from 15 months ago, with just a couple of (useful) modifications. And – read it again – note that the PRC is not even named. It is good to see, but you get the impression that it was one of those issues that mattered to the Australians and in putting together communiques there has to be some given and take (I’m assuming Ardern’s side is the one keen on the strange “circular economy” paragraph that also survives from one year to another).

Then we got a paragraph that was not there at all last year

43. The Prime Ministers expressed deep concern over developments that limit the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and undermine the high degree of autonomy China guaranteed Hong Kong until 2047 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Prime Ministers also expressed grave concerns about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and called upon China to respect the human rights of the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities and to grant the United Nations and other independent observers meaningful and unfettered access to the region.

I suppose it is good stuff as far as it goes, which is not very far. On Hong Kong, for example, there is no denunciation of the growing number of political prisoners or – in this week of Tiananmen Square remembrance – of the heavy punishments people of Hong Kong are threatened with if they seek to participate in (long-established) vigils). And as for the Uighur comments, they are less pointed that the recent resolution of the New Zealand Parliament which – if it did not name China – did refer to “severe human rights abuses”.

It is also interesting that in the next two paragraphs the two leaders could call out Myanmar much more directly

They condemned the violence being perpetrated against the people of Myanmar and called on the military regime to exercise restraint, refrain from further violence, release all those arbitrarily detained, and engage in dialogue.

Which is good stuff, but might almost equally be said of China….except the thought would never cross Ardern’s mind (perhaps the Australians would not have been keen either).

And what is missing completely is also interesting – no mention of PRC threats to Taiwan, military incursions etc, and not even (that I could see) a mention of the desirability of Taiwan participating in the WHO.

Oh, and there was also this

41. The Prime Ministers agreed to continue working collaboratively, bilaterally, and with our partners in the Indo-Pacific region, to uphold sovereignty in an era of increasing strategic competition. The Prime Ministers reaffirmed their resolve and shared respective approaches to countering foreign interference and agreed the importance of building resilience across all sectors of society, including in education, infrastructure, research, electoral processes, media and communities.

But that is just boilerplate communique-speak, with no substance whatever. It covers over the fact that the New Zealand government has been reluctant to even speak of foreign interference/influence risks – seen most recently in the belated emergence of news of the secret National/Labour deal to clear about the headline risks around Jian Yang and Raymond Huo, while neither party leader will even front with the public on the issue.

The different stance between New Zealand and the 13 western countries (not the Five Eyes) on the WHO study on Covid origins was also quietly swept under the carpet.

So for all the bonhomie and smooth words, it didn’t really amount to much. As I noted earlier, it suited both sides now to paper over the cracks and pretend to a commonality of view. There is a line afoot that only the PRC itself benefits from divergence between western countries (or specifically New Zealand and Australia) on these issues, but that is an argument for more substantive alignment, not for pretending to a commonality that just doesn’t exist. Read the speeches (Ardern, Mahuta), watch the interviews (eg O’Connor): this is a government that simply has no stomach to seriously call out the PRC. Perhaps Damien O’Connor’s respect was “a mistake” – as he now concedes – but it was a slip of the tongue only in that he shouldn’t have said it publicly, not that the idea had never previously occurred to him and a word he’d never previously thought of slipped out. Or repeated references from senior ministers to “respecting” the PRC. Decent people don’t treat with respect regimes responsible for (at least) “severe human rights abuses”.

The appropriate benchmark here is not what Australia says or does (although the consensus across Australian politics is clearly in a quite different place to that in New Zealand – see the recent speech from the ALP’s Penny Wong) but on what is right and proper. There are areas where Australia itself isn’t as strong as it could be – one could think of parliamentary resolutions, autonomous sanctions regimes, the Winter Olympics, and so on.

But the New Zealand government’s stance continues to fall a long way short. Why will the Prime Minister not explain why her government scrapped the Autonomous Sanctions bill that had sat on Parliament’s order paper for several years, with no replacement? Why does her government continue to claim that she will be guided by the UN on “genocide” declarations re the Uighurs, when she knows that China is a veto-carrying permanent member of the UN Security Council. Why does she never speak openly about the South China Sea (an evolving and worsening situation, currently directly threatening the Philippines)? Why is she never willing to highlight threats to Taiwan? Why will she not front up about the Jian Yang/Raymond Huo deal? Why does her party keep recruiting ethnic Chinese candidates with strong United Front ties? Why will she do nothing serious about reforming electoral donations laws (even as multiple court cases and SFO investigations are underway)? Why was she so loathe to comment at the time of the break-ins to Anne-Marie Brady’s house and office (let alone when other NZ universities sought to have Brady silenced)? Why is she not willing to speak out about the Winter Olympics – does she really think the Olympics should be held in a country responsible for “severe human rights abuses”? Why is she not taking any lead to get PRC/CCP-funded and recruited/screened people out of our schools, instead funding Chinese language learning properly ourselves? And so on.

I was going to include in this post some thoughts on, and responses to, a new article in the Victoria University publications Policy Quarterly by Anne-Marie Brady on the New Zealand government’s approach to the PRC. It is a very generous treatment, about the “significant progress” she claims has been made under the Ardern governments of the last four years. I didn’t find it very convincing at all, but I guess it must have been welcomed in the Beehive and in MFAT.