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Symbolism and substance on agenda for PM Ardern’s China visit

March 27, 2019

By Stephen Jacobi

Opinion – Symbolism is important. Our country has learnt that in these days since the dreadful terrorist attack on the Muslim community and the city of Christchurch.

The symbolism of people holding hands around a mosque and of a Prime Minister with her head covered in respect and comforting the bereaved.

Symbolism is important in international relations too.

Despite the national trauma and the personal anguish of the last few days Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is making time to make a quick first visit to the Chinese capital.

Her Chinese hosts are making the visit possible. A longer visit might have been preferred, but the circumstances do not allow it.

This is not the first time the prime minister has met President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. But the symbolism of a visit to Beijing and the opening of our new embassy – in a bricks and mortar, a sign of the importance of the relationship – matter to both sides. It’s not just that China is our largest trading partner, it has also emerged as a new power on the world stage and one that simply cannot be ignored.

But there is also substance on the agenda. There are the trade and economic issues of course – the long-awaited and much-needed upgrade of our free trade agreement, now 10 years old; the opportunity for New Zealand to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative where it makes sense to do so; the need to make common cause in defence of the open international trading system.

There are new areas to be explored. New Zealand and China are aligned on the need to combat climate change. Last year’s visit to China by Climate Change Minister James Shaw opened the door to some new areas of co-operation. New Zealand is re-setting its policies towards the Pacific: there is scope to work with China to improve the quality of aid delivery and to address some long-term development challenges in our immediate neighbourhood. The Chinese ambassador has spoken about the need to find win-win areas of collaboration in the areas of scientific research.

There are also more sensitive political issues. The Chinese are not happy about some recent decisions taken in New Zealand including in respect of Huawei (although that process is still ongoing) and the language in last year’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement related to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The prime minister will have an opportunity to explain New Zealand’s point of view and to hear directly the views of the Chinese side.

Some will ask if the prime minister should raise human rights issues. She should certainly do so, as her predecessors have done. The conversation will not be easy but if it is to mean anything at all New Zealand’s relationship with China needs to be resilient enough to withstand differences of view. China’s prestige in the world risks being diminished by its treatment of ethnic minorities and religious communities.

There is much to celebrate in the relationship between two complementary economies despite differences in size and scale and in world view. Every day trade flows in both directions, people visit to study, to experience each other’s culture and do business. New Zealand is now home to a large Chinese diaspora – Chinese Kiwis making an enormous contribution to our national life. New Zealanders are also keen to learn more about China, its language and culture. The Chinese government is already making a contribution to language teaching – this should be matched by the New Zealand side.

One day is a short visit, but for the Prime Minister to be away at this critical time speaks to the importance she attaches to New Zealand’s international relationships. We should wish her well.

*Stephen Jacobi is executive director of the New Zealand International Business Forum and the NZ-China Council. He has previously run the NZ-US Council.

This article originally appeared in Radio NZ website on 27 March 2019.

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