Opinion: The Prime Minister’s five days in China this week, with a carefully selected supporting delegation, is a significant and worthwhile investment of time in one of New Zealand’s most important relationships.
In 2022, then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led ‘open for business’ missions to Singapore, Japan, the United States and Australia. China was simply off limits at that time because of Covid restrictions, but reconnecting with our largest trade partner has been an obvious priority since borders re-opened.
The fact Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta was able to visit China at a busy time in its annual political calendar in March, followed by the current visit just three months later, suggests the Chinese government also welcomes a dialogue at leadership level.
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The Prime Minister’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders will be a chance to establish personal rapport. Xi knows New Zealand, having visited in 2014. Other leaders on the programme, including Premier Li Qiang, were only appointed in March and will be in their roles for at least the next five years. A reciprocal high-level visit here would be a promising and welcome next step.
A lot of attention has rightly been given to trade aspects of the visit. New Zealand goods exports to China were flat in 2022, understandable given lingering lockdowns in the market for almost the whole year. Services exports such as education and tourism are also just starting to recover.
But the rapid resumption of almost 80 percent of pre-Covid two-way direct flights is promising. And despite a lumpy economic recovery so far this year, the long-term growth prospects of the China market remain exciting, with hundreds of millions forecast to join China’s middle class over the next 15 years. None of our other established markets offers growth potential at this pace or scale.
A week with the Prime Minister in China will give our exporters in established and emerging sectors a welcome boost of visibility, but also a chance for their executives to get to grips with an increasingly sophisticated market in which local primary producers are rapidly catching up to our legendary levels of safety and quality.
Our imports from China always receive less attention but they have continued to increase since 2020, so much so that a traditional trade surplus in New Zealand’s favour has become almost an even balance. China is increasingly exporting its own innovation, one example being world-class electric vehicles now in strong demand in the transitioning New Zealand auto market.
China is also the world’s largest producer of solar and wind energy components and equipment. The visit is a chance not just to discuss what we can sell to China, but also to secure sources of supply necessary for our transitioning economy.
The week will also be a chance to signal other areas in the bilateral relationship that both countries can advance. Ensuring there is diverse ballast in the relationship is sensible when the environment in which we are engaging is becoming more complex.
Often these collaborations – for example in the areas of scientific collaboration, sports, and arts – are so established and unproblematic they escape widespread attention. Others are more in the spotlight. An effective global response to climate change for example is not possible without China’s involvement, and China has set its own 2060 goal of carbon neutrality which it appears determined to achieve despite challenges of scale and its current fossil fuel-dependent economy.
It makes sense for New Zealand to look for ways it can support and benefit from China’s climate change engagement, including its hefty global diplomacy role.
The Prime Minister will also raise issues where New Zealand and China hold different views. The official readout of the Foreign Minister’s meetings in Beijing in March give an indication of what some of those areas might be, after her own discussions on Hong Kong, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
For decades New Zealand has raised issues such as human rights with China. We are not a natural proponent of megaphone diplomacy, believing we are often more effective when we speak respectfully face to face, drawing on positions we have developed ourselves. We have direct and sometimes robust discussions with other countries too, and we encourage a similar spirit of constructive engagement in return. An agreement to continue high-level dialogue with China through open channels of communication would be another excellent outcome from the week.
These are Alistair Crozier’s own views