The Government’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been relatively clear and considered so far – but any move from China to support Vladimir Putin would create a suite of new problems to resolve, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: Until Russian troops began building up on the Ukraine border this year, it seems safe to assume Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet had not devoted a great deal of foreign policy bandwidth to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

To be sure, Putin and Russia were not off the radar entirely – last year’s defence assessment noted its “flouting of international rules and norms … [and] efforts to challenge multilateral processes and institutions” – but the country rated just nine mentions to China’s 32.

Yet if the Government has had to adjust swiftly to the crisis at hand, it has gone relatively smoothly, with the biggest shortcoming resolved by the urgent passing of Russia sanctions legislation.

While ACT has decried the Government as “the weakest link in the West” when it comes to Ukraine, that view does not appear to be shared by the country itself.

After a weekend phone call with Ardern, Ukraine Prime Minister Denys Shymhal described New Zealand as one of the first countries in the world to support Ukraine, while Ukrainian diplomat Kateryna Zelenko was similarly glowing in an appearance at Parliament’s foreign affairs committee last week.

“We live in a strange world where the countries which are close neighbours with a shared history and culture appear to be a ruthless enemy, and the nations which are so far away with different historical backgrounds appear to be a real friend,” Zelenko said of New Zealand’s contributions to date.

But it is China, a country where New Zealand has been more often described as a ‘weak link’, whose view on the Ukraine conflict could prove the largest complication.

Any move from Xi Jinping to more directly back Russia’s actions would almost certainly provoke a response against China from the US and other countries, leaving New Zealand with a more fraught situation given the country’s greater exposure to the Asian market.

Beijing has so far taken a careful approach to Russia, with whom it is often aligned against the United States on the international stage.

The Asian superpower has preferred speaking about the Ukraine “conflict” or “crisis” rather than invasion, while similarly refusing to condemn Russian actions.

A flurry of reports from American and European media outlets last week about the Russian government asking China to provide military equipment led to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang rejecting what he described as “disinformation”.

But there are fears that position may not hold, while according to Bloomberg, China’s Russia envoy Zhang Hanhui told Chinese businesses in Moscow to “fill the void” in the market left by the crisis.

Any move from Xi Jinping to more directly back Russia’s actions would almost certainly provoke a response against China from the US and other countries, leaving New Zealand with a more fraught situation given the country’s greater exposure to the Asian market.

The spectre of international sanctions against China loomed heavily over an online briefing for exports held by Kiwi foreign affairs officials last week, with the moderator noting “a large number of questions” on the likely response to such a scenario.

Russia sanctions taskforce head Andrea Smith offered a straight bat in response, saying officials’ focus remained firmly on Russia itself – but behind the scenes, there is almost certainly some fingernail chewing about the worst-case scenarios with China.

Smith, and Ardern, have however reiterated New Zealand’s desire for China to use its access and influence towards a diplomatic solution.

A similar call from Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson led to some (including former foreign affairs minister Winston Peters) accusing her of naivety, but Ardern and company have been more willing to use whatever diplomatic levers they may have to bring an end to the violence.

‘Moral high ground’

The bigger issue is whether China will show any willingness to listen to the calls for it to act as a mediator.

With Xi focused on his bid to break precedent and secure a third term leading China later this year, some have suggested his risk-averseness would preclude a more significant intervention (although that would also suggest a full-throated backing of Russia is unlikely).

An editorial this week from CCP-owned outlet the Global Times expressed outrage at what it described as American attempts to establish “a new inquisition”.

“The US is the one that triggered the conflict and is the biggest hidden hand behind the curtain, who has made the Russia-Ukraine crisis where it is today. To shirk its responsibility and seek its own interests, Washington concocted a new charge for those who haven’t condemned Russia to set up a new moral high ground for global sanctions against Russia,” the newspaper said.

That sets New Zealand alongside the US on said moral high ground, although there has not yet been any public criticism from Chinese diplomats here about the decision to join with sanctions.

The desire here for China to play a greater role in encouraging peace seems genuine.

But given pre-existing concerns about a bifurcation of technology and other systems between the West and the East, a continued hedging would likely be preferable to further widening that divide.

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

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