Analysis: The chances of the Prime Minister getting “harangued” by President Xi Jinping on Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People are fairly slim.
Chris Hipkins would neither confirm nor deny reports from The Australian that Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta took a bit of a bruising when she travelled to meet her Chinese counterpart in March.
The newspaper wrote that Mahuta had received a dressing down and was “haranged for a whole hour” by Qin Gang.
Newsroom understands the meeting hasn’t impacted lines of communication between the two countries, with talks at senior official level proceeding in recent months ahead of Hipkins visit and no indications the relationship had broken down in the aftermath of the ministerial meet.
Speaking from Beijing on Monday, Hipkins told Newsroom he’d received a briefing from Mahuta on her return
“I’m not playing anything down, the message I got in the debrief was that there were areas where there was agreement and areas of disagreement.”
When Xi rolls out the welcome mat on Tuesday he doesn’t need to make things uncomfortable with Hipkins – that’s what foreign ministers are for.
The testier dialogue can and traditionally does happen at a ministerial and official level, allowing the message to be delivered but leaving leaders able to focus on diplomacy and stay above the fray.
Asked how Mahuta described the meeting, Hipkins said it was “constructive”.
“Constructive meetings don’t always involve unanimous agreement.”
Any hint of frostiness between Xi and Hipkins isn’t the only relationship being closely watched on the five-day trip to China.
A significant business delegation has come with the Prime Minister to try sell and progress New Zealand exports, and two members of the high-profiled contingent are in a war of words.
Auckland International Airport chief executive Carrie Hurihanganui penned an opinion piece in the NZ Herald on Monday morning calling out Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran for his “disappointing” comments last week in the same publication.
Foran claimed Auckland Airport wasn’t pursing its mega renovation “within a responsible budget” and had passed on billions of dollars of profits to shareholders instead of saving to pay for its own redevelopment.
Hurihanganui hit back saying Air NZ had been part of the conversations and had supported the makeover, which was vital for “investing in infrastructure”.
“Now the time has come for them to contribute to the costs of improving assets they use every day, Air New Zealand is asking us to put infrastructure development on hold,” she wrote.
Foran and Hurihanganui spent 16 hours on the Defence Force plane to Beijing sitting just a couple of rows apart.
While Foran’s position had already been published, he was unaware Hurighanganui would be striking back while they were overseas, spending day in, day out together with the Prime Minister and other senior business leaders.
The pair spent most of Monday afternoon just four seats apart in a small windowless auditorium discussing the challenges and opportunities for China and New Zealand’s relationship.
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While the trip is in the heart of China, with visits to Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, the Prime Minister and his delegation could have been mistaken for thinking they were in New Zealand on Monday.
The programme, which included a powhiri and business showcase at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, was all about celebrating Maori tikanga with haka, waiata and welcomes from both sides of the makeshift paepae.
The world champion Te Matatini kapa haka group, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, has made the journey with Hipkins and has successfully carried the business and ministerial delegation when it comes to waiata.
On previous overseas trips since the borders opened, waiata have been fairly lacklustre with constant prompts for a “bit more enthusiasm” and volume from the business delegations.
But with the kapa haka group there to drive song, it’s an easy way for those who haven’t learnt the words to hide.
Hipkins was one of those trying but failing to hide in two of the three waiata sung on Monday; he admitted to Newsroom he didn’t know the words.
Asked if he should have learned them to be able to get involved, Hipkins said it was a work in progress and he’s never “claimed perfection”.
He said tikanga Māori was a big part of New Zealand’s story and it would be showcased extensively over the week.
It’s also an opportunity to try rectify the scenes in London earlier this year when New Zealand’s High Commissioner to London, Phil Goff, was accused of disrespecting the Māori King Tūheitia and ignoring tikanga protocol.
“What happened in London was pretty unfortunate and it could have been avoided,” Hipkins said.
The World Economic Forum in Tianjan comes first for Hipkins on Tuesday before he catches a fast train back to Beijing to head into his power talks with Xi.