Comment: When Chris Hipkins stripped Nanaia Mahuta of her local government portfolio earlier this year, the Prime Minister framed the demotion as giving her greater opportunity to travel abroad as Foreign Affairs Minister.
Other factors were clearly at play, including the toxicity of the opposition to her role in Three Waters reforms, but it is a challenge Mahuta has taken up: barely three months into 2023, the minister has already made it to India, Japan, Singapore and Fiji.
It is her visit this week to Beijing, however, that will present the minister with her sternest test so far this year.
Announcing the week-long trip on Monday, Mahuta described New Zealand’s relationship with China as “one of our most important, complex and wide ranging” – the word ‘complex’ doing plenty of heavy lifting.
A New Zealand minister hasn’t visited China since 2019, when bilateral relations were at their lowest ebb for years thanks to Chinese anger over telecommunications company Huawei being shut out of our country’s 5G network.
Since then, a global pandemic has seen China (among others) close its borders to the world, only lifting the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions late last year in the face of domestic unrest.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has further strengthened his own authority with a precedent-breaking third term in power, while the change of president in the United States has done little to cool tensions between the rival superpowers, as seen during the spy balloon saga earlier this year.
In short, there will be plenty of potential topics to occupy Mahuta during her two-day stay in Beijing.
Towards the top of her agenda will almost certainly be encouraging the return of Chinese students and tourists to New Zealand, both of which are still some way from returning to pre-Covid levels to the detriment of Kiwi businesses.
There is a reason Mahuta described China as “integral to New Zealand’s economic recovery” in the press release announcing her trip.
Beijing-Moscow ties cause concern
But any ‘back to business’ message will be complicated by the geopolitical realities, as evidenced by the major China news this week – Xi’s own visit to Moscow for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Chinese government has framed the trip as an opportunity to push for a peaceful end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In reality, Xi’s trip will provide a significant boost for Putin – particularly as it comes just days after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the Russian leader’s arrest to face war crimes charges.
With US officials warning earlier this year that China was giving serious thought to providing lethal aid to Russia, and media reports that Chinese companies have already been sending arms to Moscow through circuitous routes, the visible display of Putin and Xi’s “no-limits” friendship is undoubtedly awkward timing for Mahuta.
Asked about Xi’s visit on Monday, Hipkins said New Zealand was “emphatically opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, as well as “any suggestion that other countries might support Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
Exactly what the Government would do if Chinese support of Putin’s war was to become overt remains to be seen, but Mahuta will be walking a tightrope in her discussions of the Ukraine invasion with Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang.
Then there is the matter of China’s own human rights record. While the global outcry over the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has subsided somewhat since last year’s damning report from the UN’s top human rights representative, there is still pressure for Chinese officials to face meaningful consequences for their actions.
If that wasn’t enough, foreign interference concerns have again reared their head, with Stuff reporting earlier this month on a senior government analyst accused of providing privileged information to the Chinese government.
Yuan Zhao’s case has put a face to messaging from Kiwi intelligence officials about the risks of foreign interference, and with the Chinese embassy dismissing Zhao’s detention as a “smear and attack” it would be little surprise if Mahuta was to face further criticism in Beijing.
As the Government carefully manages its ties with China, it is also receiving diplomatic bouquets from the US.
The day before Mahuta announced her trip, US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell was singing New Zealand’s praises during a flying visit to Wellington en route to the Pacific.
“We are close partners and friends, and it is absolutely clear that the trajectory is for us to work more closely together,” Campbell said on Sunday, previewing the launch of a new bilateral agreement between the US and New Zealand focused on technology.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific czar also offered positive words about the prospect of New Zealand joining the non-nuclear components of the Aukus alliance – a move that is surely some way from fruition, but which would be unlikely to attract a warm response from Beijing.
Asked by Newsroom whether New Zealand would need to lift its own defence spending to match the capability of its partners, Campbell said it was a decision for the New Zealand people – but was clear about the changing environment.
“It is also the case that a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific have stepped up in ways that are hard to imagine just a few years ago…this is a response to an urgent set of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and like-minded countries are rallying independently to those challenges.”
With those challenges showing no signs of subsiding, it may be for the best that Mahuta has her calendar clear for a foreign focus in the coming year.