After months of agitation and speculation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is finally making her first trip to China. Sam Sachdeva looks at the main issues likely to be on the agenda during her visit, as well as the broader political climate that awaits her.

Jacinda Ardern’s inaugural trip to China as Prime Minister was meant to be a moment of triumph.

For months, the Government has been hammered by the National Party for allegedly damaging the relationship through careless talk and a newly hawkish stance in defence and security.

A key part of that argument rested on the Prime Minister’s inability to deliver on her desire to visit Beijing in 2018: a trip was pencilled in for late last year then delayed due to supposed scheduling issues, which only gave further fodder to the Opposition.

Ardern’s April trip, originally planned as a week-long, multi-city schedule with a full business delegation, would have served as a refutation of the suggestion China was turning its back on New Zealand.

Then, the Christchurch terror attack happened, and with it a drastic change in priorities.

That the trip is still happening at all, albeit for only one day in Beijing, is a sign of its vital importance.

In some ways, the mosque shootings have actually increased the pressure on Ardern’s visit, particularly when it comes to the issue of China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim population.

Uighur issue test of values

The mass detention of up to a million Uighurs in “re-education” camps to ensure their loyalty to the CCP has not created the level of outrage it should, while there has been a dramatic increase in surveillance of Uighurs both in the Xinjiang Uighur region and in the wider diaspora.

Talk from Chinese officials of “eradicating the tumours” in a Xinjiang village sits uneasily, to say the least, with Ardern’s comments at the official remembrance service: “An assault on the freedom of any one of us who practices their faith or religion, is not welcome here.”

The Prime Minister was relatively cagey when asked about whether should would raise the Uighur situation, saying: “It’s fair to say I have raised the issue before, and I have raised human rights issues before.”

While the Islamic world has kept quiet about the plight of the Uighurs, Ardern will be under pressure to deliver suitably robust criticism – not least given her pointed remarks to US President Donald Trump, asking him to show love for Muslim communities in the wake of the attack, and her consistent emphasis of a values-based approach to foreign policy.

The Uighurs are not the only sensitive topic which Ardern will be forced to discuss.

New Zealand’s Uighur Muslim community has protested outside Parliament about China’s treatment of the minority – will Jacinda Ardern take heed? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

There is the vexed issue of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and its mooted role in Spark’s 5G mobile network, blocked for now due to security concerns expressed by the GCSB.

Some on the Chinese side see the Huawei fears as a conspiracy theory from Five Eyes nations staving off competition – a perception unlikely to be swayed by a new report from the UK-based Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, raising concerns about “new risks” related to the company’s infrastructure in the country.

Ardern and her ministers have repeatedly reiterated the fact that the process in New Zealand is independent of political considerations – there’s a chance that message will be somewhat lost in translation, given the extent to which the CCP involves itself in domestic issues.

The US has put its own line in the sand, warning intelligence partners against allowing Huawei into their networks.

Ardern can expect to face some tough questions from Chinese President Xi Jinping about the issue – and finding a solution which maintains New Zealand’s independence, without giving anyone a diplomatic black eye, will be no easy task.

New Zealand’s interim decision to bar Huawei from its 5G networks will be a topic of discussion in China. Photo: Getty Images.

Then there is the trade and economic lens through which the bilateral relationship has traditionally, if myopically, been viewed.

A swift resolution to talks over an FTA upgrade seems unlikely, given MFAT’s suggestion last December that the deal was some way away from conclusion.

It’s also debatable how much improvement can actually be made in areas like dairy, given Australia’s upgrade prioritised larger quotas in the short term over unrestricted access in the long run.

Overall, though, Ardern will probably feel happy getting through the trip without any major incidents.

She may feel heartened by the comments of a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman previewing her trip, who emphasised that bilateral relations “have long been a step ahead of relations between China and other developed Western countries”.

Yet that could be seen as a warning as much as a compliment: step away from the tight relationship of days gone past, and you will be going against history.

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

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