In the wake of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first face-to-face meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in three years at this week’s APEC Summit, University of Otago foreign policy and trade experts analyse the next steps NZ should take in response to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region and its alleged human rights abuses.

“It would be a giant misunderstanding to depict Wellington as ‘soft on China’,” – Professor Robert Patman, Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and specialist in International Relations.

Comment: New Zealand’s omission from the trilateral Aukus pact has fuelled a narrative that Wellington has been diminished by its non-nuclear stance and its independent foreign policy, particularly in relation to China.

The pact announcement of September 16 last year envisaged the sharing of information in key technological areas, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, to uphold the ‘international rules-based order’ against the apparent threat of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, it would be a giant misunderstanding to depict Wellington as ‘soft on China’, a view that regularly surfaces in some media outlets.

To be sure, New Zealand has often pursued a more nuanced policy towards China than many of its Five Eyes partners.

New Zealand’s stance on Beijing’s Winter Games in February 2022 was only the latest in a long line of diplomatic efforts under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership to engage with China in a way that distinguishes it from its allies.

But New Zealand has also demonstrated that it has few illusions about China’s authoritarian system and growing international assertiveness – the Ardern Government’s clear opposition to China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands earlier this year being a case in point.

But if New Zealand shares many of the strategic concerns of close allies about China, why has it expressed them in a more nuanced diplomatic fashion than its Aukus counterparts?

Part of the answer is that New Zealand not only seeks to defend the international rules-based order but also seeks to significantly strengthen it.

After all, China has not been alone in challenging the international rules-based order in the 21st Century. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Putin regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 highlight this inconvenient truth.

So while New Zealand shares a great deal with the Aukus states, Wellington’s distinctive vision of extending the multilateral order means that it is unlikely to abandon its more nuanced policy toward China to be in lock-step with its traditional allies.

“A comprehensive review of critical New Zealand supply chains is needed” – Dr Murat Ungor, senior lecturer in Economics, focusing on international macroeconomics and trade, and China’s structural transformation.

Beijing’s hard-line zero-Covid policy, declining business and consumer confidence indices, deceleration in productivity growth, and weakening property sector are among the most pressing economic challenges facing China as President Xi consolidates his power.

In the past four decades, China experienced remarkable economic growth and development – starting with reforms in December 1978 – however this growth started to weaken before the global pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund marked China’s annual growth down to 3.2 percent in its October 2022 World Economic Outlook due to the impact of zero-Covid lockdowns on mobility and the crisis in the real estate sector (its second-lowest level since 1977) although the IMF predicts this will rise again to 4.4 percent in 2023.

China’s economic problems have consequences for the rest of the world given the size of its economy and importance in global trade and supply chains. This is also a concern for New Zealand because it has significant links with China, not least being that it is our largest trade partner.

New Zealand’s economic plan should involve a diversification of trade partners and export bundle composition. Regional cooperation and economic partnership agreements will also help New Zealand overcome its lack of scale relative to international competitors. A comprehensive review of critical New Zealand supply chains is needed to answer the question of whether it has to (re)build its productive capacity in key sectors and value-chains.

Recently the Government asked the Productivity Commission to begin an inquiry into New Zealand’s economic resilience to persistent supply chain disruptions. This is an important step, but is a bit late. US President Joe Biden, for example, signed an Executive Order in early 2021 to assess vulnerabilities and strengthen the resilience of critical US supply chains. The trade ministers of Australia, Japan and India launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative in 2021 as well.

Resilient supply chains, diversified trade partners, new regional and multilateral trade, investment and economic partnership agreements, and identifying and investing in high-value-added sectors should be New Zealand’s strategic actions to mitigate global risks and increasing uncertainty.

“Wellington could adopt legislation that is more consistently aligned with its commitment to human rights” – Dr Balazs Kiglics, teaching fellow in Asian Studies and Global Studies co-ordinator of the Otago Foreign Policy and National Security School

New Zealand prides itself on being the first country in the world to give women voting rights and having a strong legacy of addressing and rectifying injustices committed against its indigenous people. The underlying values and principles are also reflected in its foreign policy, which has a history of promoting and protecting universal human rights. Having a sense of shared responsibility in international and global issues, New Zealand has also been one of the strongest proponents, as well as a beneficiary, of the international rules-based order.

Prompted by a serious concern for a further deterioration of that order, New Zealand was among a group of countries that in a joint statement urged China to address a report issued by the UN High Commissioner this September, alleging serious and ongoing human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.

While stopping short of labelling China’s activities in Xinjiang a genocide, as the US and some other Western countries did, New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta suggested that the findings of the UN report could amount to crimes against humanity and called on Beijing to uphold its international human rights obligations.

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Government welcomed coordinated sanctions imposed on China announced by Canada, the EU, the UK and the US as a response to Beijing’s ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. While expressing “grave concerns” about the situation in China, Wellington did not follow suit in introducing any sanctions of its own.

In fact, a proposed bill in this country that intended to impose sanctions on China failed to become legislation last year, largely due to resistance from the Government. This prompted many to criticise Wellington for not walking the talk on China’s human rights issues. The Government was perhaps overly cautious about the bill’s possible implications on bilateral relations with New Zealand’s largest trade partner.

Prior to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this week’s APEC summit she indicated she intended to raise human rights issues in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and ongoing tensions with Taiwan.

In addition to keep voicing concerns regarding China and some other countries, Wellington could 1) adopt legislation that is more consistently aligned with its commitment to human rights by imposing sanctions and creating a regulatory regime that prevents the importing of products and materials that involve the use of forced labour or any other type of human rights abuses and 2) rely more heavily on its cooperation with like-minded countries, including forging new ties and deepening existing cooperation along those values and principles it considers so important.

New Zealand’s attempt to paddle against the tide of authoritarian trends with a half-hearted effort will only further weaken the very values it is supposed to uphold, and results in more questions as to what the essence of its self-proclaimed independent foreign policy is. As is the case with climate change, every wasted opportunity to take action and protect human rights is now one too many.

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