The status of Taiwan has long been a sensitive issue for China - and Winston Peters' very public advocacy for its role at the WHO has created a stir. Photo: Getty Images.

The Government’s decision to support Taiwan having a role within the World Health Organisation is not quite the dramatic shift it appears – but it is the tenor of the announcement that may create a stir, Sam Sachdeva writes

With politicians and the public alike preoccupied with issues within our borders, debate about New Zealand’s place within the world has receded in recent months – with the notable exception of bragging about our coronavirus statistics.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters’ decision to very publicly back Taiwan’s case for regaining observer status within the World Health Organisation (WHO) – and the subsequent war of words between himself and the Chinese Embassy – has provided a useful reminder of the geopolitical implications of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been keen to duck the issue of whether Taiwan should be formally included at this month’s World Health Assembly, but Peters waded in boots and all to back up the United States and Australia and their support for its readmission as an observer.

While Peters’ comments have caused a stir, in reality New Zealand has not shifted materially from the position it has held since China first blocked Taiwan’s participation in 2016 following a change of administration.

An MFAT briefing on the issue ahead of last year’s World Health Assembly noted New Zealand had provided in-principle support for Taiwan’s involvement in international organisations “where it has practical benefit, in particular in organisations and issues of New Zealand’s national or global systemic interests”, with a focus on substance and technical engagement over symbolism, and provided its participation did not imply statehood.

“As such, New Zealand’s position …has been that we support, in principle, Taiwan’s participation in the Assembly due to the practical global health benefits of Taiwan’s involvement.”

That aligns with this week’s statement from Peters that backing Taiwan’s involvement in 2020 is not based on political or geo-strategic considerations, but global public health – more important than ever given the pandemic and Taiwan’s success to date in combating the virus.

Nor is it necessarily inconsistent with the one-China policy that New Zealand adheres to (distinct from the one-China principle, which holds that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China).

Winston Peters’ admonition of Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi was unhelpful in tone, to say the least. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The problem, as is often the case with the current Foreign Minister, lies more in tone than substance.

Telling Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi to “listen to her master, [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi, back in Beijing” was an unnecessarily provocative response to a fairly benign statement from the Chinese Embassy on the topic.

Treating attack as the best form of defence has helped keep New Zealand First afloat over the years, but it is hardly the best fit for the diplomatic world.

It also seems predicated on the belief that Wu and Wang are actually at odds over the issue – a view which appears naive at best.

Sure enough, this week China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the country “deplores and opposes” the remarks and had formally lodged an objection with New Zealand, further warning: “Such erroneous remarks on the New Zealand side severely violate the one-China principle.”

On the issue of both Taiwan’s WHO status and separate calls for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, Peters has insisted he has no fears of potential repercussions based on New Zealand’s stance – even in the face of China’s ambassador to Australia suggesting a boycott of Australian goods over its support for the latter inquiry.

“I’m not worried about that because China has promised me they don’t behave that way,” Peters said.

He may have received those assurances, but a quick look at the experiences of Norway, South Korea and the Philippines – just a few of the countries to have faced blocks of, or delays to, exports shortly after political altercations with China – provides sufficient evidence the country cannot necessarily be taken at its word.

Zhao was similarly surprised by Peters’ confidence, saying of the assurances he had supposedly been given: “I wonder how he came to that assumption?”

Taiwan’s status has long been a sensitive topic for China: advice for Kiwi exporters produced under the last National government warns against putting its flag in any materials about business in China, or using its traditional Chinese characters instead of the simplified equivalent from the mainland.

The decision to publicly proclaim New Zealand’s support for Taiwan, instead of quietly sticking to that status quo, risks sending a signal – intentional or not – about where our loyalties lie.

With Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe declaring last June that the country’s military would “fight at all costs for national unity” against any attempt by Taiwan to split away, some foreign policy observers fear any US-China conflict over the issue could change the Asia-Pacific as we know it.

In that light, the decision to publicly proclaim New Zealand’s support for Taiwan, instead of quietly sticking to that status quo, risks sending a signal – intentional or not – about where our loyalties lie, while there is little prospect of the WHO budging from its position as it noted overnight.

Then there is the complication of New Zealand’s new role in a US-led coalition charting a path out of the pandemic – dubbed the Quad Plus by some, and the Economic Prosperity Network by (at least) one American official.

Peters and Ardern would almost certainly argue we have the right to partner with whom we choose, and that joining such an alliance does not need to come at the expense of others.

That is true – but equally, it is difficult if not impossible to separate the noble intentions behind the current collaboration from the geopolitical considerations at play in the earlier revival of the Quad under Donald Trump.

The Government has already felt the heat over troubled bilateral relations this term, with months of pressure over a perceived anti-Huawei stance, foreign investment restrictions and other areas of concern requiring a flying trip to Beijing by Ardern.

Winston Peters is right to take a principled position on Taiwan – but wrong to be cavalier about how he has expressed it. Photo: Mark Mitchell/Pool.

With the domestic economy already under strain from the pandemic-induced lockdown and wider global uncertainties, any decision by China to make an example of New Zealand could prove fatal for some exporters.

The obvious counter-argument is that China still needs to import dairy products and other goods produced here, and may need to offer carrots rather than sticks as countries weigh whether to diversify their supply chains away from the superpower to reduce risk.

It could also be argued that any companies that are overexposed to a single market should not expect an abundance of sympathy in the event they are caught out.

But while those strategic discussions should, and almost certainly will, take place in the longer term, in the here and now there are still plenty of firms who will be relying on Chinese demand to accelerate their economic recovery.

Should financial considerations prevent us from holding a principled position on political issues? Of course not.

But should we express those positions carefully to avoid unnecessary provocation? The answer, to borrow the language of Peters, is seriously clear.

* This article has been updated since publication to include the latest remarks from China’s foreign ministry about Peters’ remarks, and the WHO’s most recent comments about its inability to allow Taiwan into the World Health Assembly.

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

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