Analysis: Face-to-face diplomacy is the theme of both China and New Zealand’s governments this year with Chris Hipkins off on his fifth international trip in as many months, and Xi Jinping having put out the welcome mat to close to a dozen leaders.

When the Prime Minister makes his visit to the Great Hall of the People, he will be one of four leaders Xi hosts that week.

Barbados, Vietnam, and Mongolia all have official leader-to-leader level meetings in and around the days Hipkins is in China and several others have already been received, including Spain, France, Singapore, Brazil, and Malaysia.

* Hipkins confirms Xi meeting
* Looking beyond Aussie and China

All eyes were on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting earlier in the week with Xi, a sit-down only confirmed at the last minute, but described afterwards by both sides as “candid and in-depth”.

But just days later US President Joe Biden appeared to open a new rift, making public comments that Xi was a dictator and then refusing to back down from the remarks.

Biden insists the comments haven’t had a negative impact and won’t affect plans for the pair to meet sometime soon, which is expected to be at the APEC meeting hosted by the US in San Francisco later this year.

China’s embassy in Washington responded with formal protest, and the Chinese Ambassador told senior White House officials, “the Chinese government and people do not accept any political provocation against China’s top leader and will resolutely respond”.

There was also a warning shot of taking actions to undo the remarks or “bear all the consequences”.

Hipkins, asked for his own view on whether Xi is a dictator, disagreed with Biden, telling media, “that’s not language I would use – the system of government the Chinese people have is a matter for China”.

While he’s yet to meet Xi, Hipkins said he didn’t think “those kinds of labels are useful”.

The week-long trade trip is seen as an investment in one of New Zealand’s long-lasting relationships.

There is far more at stake and much more room for error in the diplomatic meetings he will encounter on this visit compared to any others he’s had as prime minister.

In April Newsroom reported some trade officials were questioning why so much focus was on visiting China when that time could be spent in markets where New Zealand is in the final stages of ratifying agreements or don’t have free trade at all.

India, the Gulf, and Latin America are all markets that have been put on the back burner when more attention could be spent developing the relationship at a leader-to-leader level to try to kick-start negotiations.

Hipkins told Newsroom the relationship with China needed to continue to be nurtured because it’s a “growth market”.

At the same time, he said it was important and “sensible economic strategy” for exporters to be making sure they diversify their markets.

This week’s trip is primarily focused on trade “but with a good degree of diplomacy built in as well,” Hipkins said.

Asked if he was much of a foreign affairs whizz or a particularly diplomatic person, the Prime Minister responded saying it’s an area he hasn’t been “immersed in” but as a “quick learner” and a “mostly” diplomatic person he expected to get up to speed pretty quickly. 

There are two pillars to the trip – trade and tourism – and a sizeable delegation from both sectors is travelling with Hipkins along with both Trade Minister Damien O’Connor and Tourism Minister Peeni Henare.

Hipkins has official meetings with the three big players in the Chinese administration – President Xi, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Zhao Leji, and Premier Li Qiang.

But most of the trip is chocker full of business engagements, a university visit, and prospective trade opportunities across Beijing and Shanghai, along with a day in Tianjin for the World Economic Forum, including some bilateral meetings on the side.

Hipkins has already shown on his other missions that he can do the speeches, the photo-ops, the small talk, and is prepared to give almost anything a go if asked.

There is far more at stake and much more room for error in the diplomatic meetings he will encounter on this visit compared to any others he’s had as prime minister.

On whether he would raise with Xi New Zealand’s serious concerns when it comes to human rights abuses and any potential militarisation of the Pacific, Hipkins said he would continue to make those differences clear but wouldn’t indicate how strong he would be and what his focus would be ahead of the meetings.

China is traditionally very scripted and precise about its messaging and Hipkins heads off on Sunday knowing there are expectations on him from afar to be firm in New Zealand’s position and response too.

Newsroom’s political editor Jo Moir is travelling to China and will be providing coverage across the week

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment