With the debate over China’s rise showing no signs of abating, should New Zealand be staking it its own position more clearly? A visiting academic says we risk being “caught with our pants down” if we don’t prepare ourselves for a future conflict.

It is a question on the minds of many countries: the United States or China? Both, or neither?

New Zealand is not exempt from the debate, and a visiting academic has argued our government must stake out a clearer position on how it will handle China’s growing influence to avoid being caught out.

Travis Gidado, a visiting research fellow from Beijing’s Peking University, says there also needs to be a more balanced discussion about China’s rise to avoid the debate turning toxic.

Gidado, who has previously worked at the White House and in the UK Cabinet Office, discussed his research into perceptions of Chinese influence in New Zealand at a Victoria University event on Thursday night.

He said it was not unusual for a rising power like China to seek to influence other countries around the world.

“Whether it’s the United States, whether it’s the UK, whether it’s the Roman Empire, great powers have always tried to find ways to exert their influence through economic means, political means, cultural means.”

However, because China was newly ascendant its rise was not as well understood, leading to concerns which tilted the discussions around its influence.

“There are things we assume about a country with a one-party government, with what we assume is an authoritarian government, the things you hear about human rights and larger questions of the moral aspect of this, and so this leads people to take certain stances rather than looking at the issue more broadly.”

‘The Anne and Stephen show’

Gidado said Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady’s paper on Chinese influence in New Zealand had accelerated the debate, although he was not sure it had been uniformly positive.

He said Brady’s report made a number of assumptions in her paper which were not backed up by hard evidence.

“She takes a lot of liberties with getting people to the line of influence and saying, ‘Look at what’s happening’, but not really coming through with that proof.”

One scholar he had spoken to expressed frustration that the China debate had turned into the “Anne and Stephen show”, with Brady on one side and the New Zealand China Council’s Stephen Jacobi on the other, crowding out more nuanced perspectives.

Gidado argued there were in fact a wide range of views on China within New Zealand.

Those who were positive about China included “China hands”, officials who had a history of engagement with and knowledge about the country, and “China opportunists” who recognised the opportunities available for New Zealand as a result of the country’s rise.

Those more neutral included “diversifiers”, who were keen to see New Zealand expand its ties beyond China, and “balancers”, who felt relations with the country could be offset through strong relationships with other allies such as the US.

Those with a negative view of China included “China sceptics”, who were concerned due to the lack of information available about the country’s rise, and “China hawks” who felt it posed an active threat to the international order.

Peking University research fellow Travis Gidado has been looking into perceptions of Chinese influence in New Zealand. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Gidado noted countries were pursuing a number of different approaches to China, with Australia taking what he described as a more “vitriolic” and outspoken tone regarding China.

While New Zealand and Australia were largely similar in their “economic asymmetry” with China, the latter appeared to be “having your cake and eating it too”.

“It remains to be seen how long that will actually last, I predict it won’t last very long.”

The New Zealand government needed to engage more seriously with the issue of Chinese influence and stake out a clearer position, rather than “sweeping it under the rug” as it seemed to have recently.

“They’re not going away here, they’re not going away across the Tasman, they’re not going away in the US – this is a question that is here to stay…

“When you start having this subtext, and you start having this dialogue where you’re kind of beating around the bush on Chinese influence and what it looks like, but it’s obviously playing itself out in the media, it’s obviously playing itself in the political realm, you need to be able to engage it head-on.”

Gidado pointed to Labour’s “Chinese-sounding names” scandal, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “deftly swerving” the issue in media interviews, as well as the lack of follow-up to Newsroom’s investigation into National MP Jian Yang’s ties to Chinese military intelligence.

“It was one of those conversations that emerged, it was a news point for a while, then people just kind of tried to bury the outcome, bury the discussion.”

A Franz Ferdinand moment?

He warned New Zealand against being caught out by what he called a “Franz Ferdinand moment” – an unexpected event such as the assassination of the Austrian archduke which sparked World War I – where it did not have a position already in place on how to respond and had its hand forced.

“Let’s say DPRK, North Korea breaks out, I’m President Trump and I’m calling everyone and saying, ‘I’m getting a coalition of the willing together to make this happen, who’s with me?’, New Zealand’s got to be ready for that call and I don’t know which way you’d go.

“I don’t know if you can do the Switzerland thing and say, ‘Here we are at the bottom of the world, we can kind of avoid any real conflict, it’s totally fine, all peachy’ – I don’t know how long that lasts, I don’t know that’s something you can play, and I just wouldn’t want to be caught with my pants down if that’s what happens.”

Having a clearer government position would also help to ensure the public debate over China was more balanced, rather than the “almost Manichean, black and white, China’s evil, China’s good” positions that were forming.

New Zealand should also not forget its own capacity to influence world affairs, Gidado said.

While New Zealand was a small country, it had shown its ability in the past “to steer the tides of change in a favourable direction” through soft diplomacy and could do the same with China.

* Victoria University is a foundation sponsor and supporter of Newsroom.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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