A warning notice on potential risks to Chinese tourists travelling to New Zealand has raised further questions about the state of the New Zealand-China relationship.

The Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China, in New Zealand, issued a notice to tourists in December warning of robberies, a low rate of police investigation, dangerous driving conditions, and cases of Chinese citizens being refused entry to New Zealand, despite having a valid visa.

In January, another notice was issued in a similar vein, focusing on the dangers of driving on New Zealand roads. Later that month, a separate notice listed risks relating to the safety of people and their property, as well as road safety and issues relating to visas and travel documentation.

The January notices included specific reference to the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, and at least one was published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, and on China’s national emergency broadcast website.

The 2019 China-New Zealand Year of tourism has been in the spotlight in recent days after a launch event was postponed.

The event, due to take place at Te Papa on February 20, was postponed due to what Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis described as a “scheduling issue”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also referred to scheduling issues as the reason she is yet to travel to China, with the visit initially planned for last year.

Davis and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta are also yet to firm up a date to travel to Beijing. Newsroom understands the trip was initially pencilled in for early March, but both ministers’ offices say a specific date has never been set, with discussions still under way.

These scheduling issues come in the wake of New Zealand taking a stronger stance on China’s actions in the Pacific, through comments in last year’s Defence Police Statement and in speeches given by Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

Last year, the GCSB followed other Five Eyes countries in rejecting Spark’s proposal to have Chinese company Huawei build its 5G network, citing security risks.

Jacinda Ardern maintains New Zealand’s relationship with China is in good shape, despite being complex, and the Government needs to take China at face value when it says postponement of visits were due to scheduling.

No evidence, no way to know

China’s intent with issuing the notices is unclear.

Some China-watchers and community members say it’s another signal China is unhappy with New Zealand’s recent actions and comments. However, others say it’s impossible to know whether there is any meaning behind the notices, other than to try and keep its citizens safe.

Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis refused to comment on the notices.

A spokesman for the minister said it was not appropriate for Davis to comment, or to pass judgment on what the Chinese consulate decided to say by way of travel advice to its citizens.

He disputed whether the notice was tourism-related, saying the minister’s remit was to “make sure tourism in New Zealand is promoted and supported, and we’re providing the best opportunities for people travelling to New Zealand”.

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to request for comment.

“With no clear or consistent benchmark, it’s impossible to say whether New Zealand’s status has changed at all, let alone attribute that change to current events.”

University of Auckland politics and international relations senior lecturer Stephen Noakes said there was no way to know for sure what, if any, meaning the notices had.

While the People’s Republic of China was disappointed over the apparent bandwagoning following the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer in Canada, Noakes said he would be surprised if the travel listing were an official reprisal.

“And if they were, no direct evidence has been made public, or is likely to be.”

It was normal for countries to issue travel warnings, even about friendly nations, he said.

“We could just as easily interpret these travel advisories on China’s part as evidence that more Chinese than ever before can afford to travel abroad and that their government seeks to ensure their welfare. “

New Zealand media also tended to exaggerate New Zealand’s value and strategic importance to China.

New Zealand was the first country to secure a free trade agreement with China, and was now working on an upgrade, and some pointed to that as a sign of the value China placed on the relationship.

But Noakes said it was not clear New Zealand was as favoured in China as was commonly supposed.

“With no clear or consistent benchmark, it’s impossible to say whether New Zealand’s status has changed at all, let alone attribute that change to current events.”

The lack of clear signals or meaning behind Chinese actions opened the door for China-watchers to speculate wildly, he said, adding that this was what was happening at present.

“I’d love to hear from anyone who has any direct evidence of intentionality, but I’m not likely to, since very, very few have this kind of access.”

‘Typical of China’

There is no clear signal or evidence the travel notices are a warning from China to New Zealand, or an attempt to stop Chinese tourists travelling to New Zealand.

However, China has been known to use tourism as a type of sanction by stealth.

On Wednesday, one observer told Newsroom blowback often begins with tourism numbers, moving onto international education before spreading to the wider trade and economic relationship.

Chinese tourists numbers to South Korea plummeted for 11 months after March 2017 due to an informal Chinese boycott against South Korea, according to coverage by Forbes.

The boycott from China was a response to the South Korean government’s decision to install a US-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system (THAAD) that Beijing felt could monitor its own military activities.

“I see this as a tantrum, and tit-for-tat being meted out upon New Zealand because of the mounting concerns expressed by New Zealand and other countries about China’s interference and espionage.”

If China was punishing New Zealand with some kind of stealthy sanctions, it would not be the first time it had used the strategy.

Corporate investigator and UK-based China expert Peter Humphrey said the Consulate-General’s notices were not genuine travel warnings.

“I see this as a tantrum, and tit-for-tat being meted out upon New Zealand because of the mounting concerns expressed by New Zealand and other countries about China’s interference and espionage.”

New Zealand was one of the safest places to travel in the world, and these risk notices were examples of China “lashing out”.

“It’s not surprising to me that the first country they do this to is the smallest one,” he said, adding that it was typical of China’s behaviour.

Chinese tourists stopped at border

The December travel notice says the Chinese embassy “has also received calls from Chinese citizens for help, reflecting that although they have a valid New Zealand visa, they were refused entry at the time of arrival and were forced to return”.

Immigration New Zealand national border manager Stephanie Greathead said 84 Chinese nationals were refused entry in the 2018 financial year, out of 297,218 Chinese visitors.

Every person travelling to New Zealand had to meet all entry requirements, and border staff made individual assessments on reasons for travel.

Refusal of entry only affected a small proportion of Chinese visitor arrivals to New Zealand, Greathead said.

“And I can confirm that genuine holiday-makers from China, who have been truthful in their visa applications and meet entry conditions, will have no problems entering New Zealand.

“However, there is a need for our border staff to be vigilant to ensure that only those with genuine intent as visitors (the vast majority of Chinese arrivals) are allowed to enter New Zealand,” she said.

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