New Zealand could find itself in the midst of a “storm” of anger from China, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta warned, saying exporters need to diversify in order to survive deteriorating relations with Beijing.
Mahuta’s comments come as the New Zealand government faces increasing pressure to take a stronger stance on human rights abuses and repression by China, highlighting the potential repercussions for countries that anger Beijing.
Neighboring Australia is in a deepening trade war with China, which Mahuta has compared to the center of a storm – which could easily engulf New Zealand.
“We can’t ignore, of course, what’s going on in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are near an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we have to ask ourselves legitimately – it may only be a matter of time before the storm is approaching us. She told the Guardian.
It was one of the minister’s most candid discussions about the vulnerability of New Zealand’s trade dependence on China – and a clear direction to local exporters that they should seek to redistribute some of these. eggs in baskets elsewhere.
“The signal I’m sending to exporters is that they need to think about diversification in this context – Covid-19, expanding relations in our region and the buffering aspects of if anything big happens with China. . Would they be able to withstand the impact? ” she asked. China represents more than 33 billion dollars of New Zealand’s total trade and nearly 30% of exports.
New Zealand is trying to walk a tightrope with China: to maintain a strong trading relationship, while leaving space for itself to criticize violations of human rights or international law. Over the past year, this position has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
The country is under pressure to take a stronger moral stance on human rights issues in and around China. Human rights groups have described massive human rights violations in Xinjiang, including the incarceration of more than one million people in internment and re-education camps, forced labor, mass sterilization of women and restrictions on religion, culture and language, such as cultural genocide.
The crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong is ongoing: An operation bringing together dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists in March means that many main voices of dissent are now in detention or in jail. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said disputes between New Zealand and China were becoming “more difficult to reconcile.”
New Zealand has issued statements expressing “serious concern” over China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but those statements tend to be milder than those of its longtime allies in the Five Eyes Network, Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.
New Zealand, with Australia, welcomed the coordinated sanctions announced by the UK, US, EU and Canada for Uyghur abuse, but did not institute specific sanctions. In May, New Zealand avoided using the word “genocide” in a motion on Xinjiang debated and unanimously passed by parliament – preferring to use more general and watered-down language of “human rights violations.” man”. Mahuta says New Zealand “has not gone so far as to qualify it as genocide because of the international legal threshold on this matter.”
At the time, Trade Minister Damien O’Connor said the use of genocidal language would hurt New Zealand’s trade relations. “It is clear that the Chinese government would not like something like this … I have no doubt that it would have an impact. [on trade]. It’s hardly rocket science, ”said O’Connor.
Opposition Leader Judith Collins also said New Zealand’s trade relationship with China was the “elephant in the room” of discussion. “For the moment, we are clearly [beholden to China] in terms of trade, ”she said Stuff.
Mahuta has previously been criticized for comments that New Zealand was “uncomfortable expanding the mandate of the Five Eyes,” a remark some saw as a move away from traditional allies. In China, state media reported the comments as “Secure New Zealand[ing] its interests by moving away from the clique led by the United States ”.
“In stark contrast to Australia, which has stuck to the US tank, New Zealand has maintained a relatively independent approach to foreign policy, paving the way for the country to pursue policies that benefit its own. economy, ”wrote the Global Times.
“To be clear, New Zealand values the Five Eyes relationship,” Mahuta told The Guardian. “It’s a security and intelligence framework from which we can work with trusted allies on these specific issues. But the human rights community is much larger than that. … We do not need the five eyes to express our position on human rights issues. “
Australia gives a vision of what the collapse of this trade relationship could look like. The diplomatic divide deepened when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in China. It has only intensified since.
China has fought back with tariffs, import restrictions and a warning to its citizens not to travel to Australia. Last year, the analysis found that China’s declared and unreported sanctions cost Australia around A $ 47.7 billion (£ 26.5 billion) last year. So far, the impact of this trade war has been mitigated by China’s continued dependence on Australian iron ore. But China has explored how to shift its supply to mines in Brazil and Guinea – if they are successful, Australia could be hit harder.
New Zealand does not have an equivalent monopoly on resources in its trade relations with China. “Whatever you can get from New Zealand, you can get it elsewhere,” said international law professor Alexander Gillespie.
“China will know our vulnerability in this area. And I think the way we position ourselves with our statements shows that we are also aware of this vulnerability, ”he said.
If that happens, China’s trade retaliation could hit New Zealand in several areas. Towards the end of 2020, the value of exports to China only surpassed the value of New Zealand’s next four trading partners – Australia, US, UK and Japan – combined.
Trade with China accounts for 28% of New Zealand’s total exports, including a quarter of dairy exports, over 60% of forest products and around 50% of meat. The country is New Zealand’s second-largest source of tourism money, behind only Australia – before Covid-19, Chinese tourists spent around $ 1.7 billion in New Zealand each year. International education is a $ 5 billion industry for New Zealand, and Chinese students make up about 47% of international students at New Zealand universities.
“China will be delighted with us right now because it sees us as the weakest link in the Five Eyes,” Gillespie said. “For a country like New Zealand, moving away from these words as genocide when other countries use it, symbolically, is important.”
Asked about the differences between New Zealand’s and Australia’s approaches to China, Mahuta said she “didn’t want to be dragged into commenting on another country’s approach in her bilateral relations ”. But she said New Zealand’s link with China has changed, maturing over time.
“The relationship with China has gone beyond the relationship of the first – we were the first to enter into a free trade agreement with China – to a mature relationship… where we can be respectful, consistent and predictable on issues that are important to us, but also issues that separate and differentiate our worldview from that of China. “
Mahuta was careful to present his message to exporters as part of a larger expansion of New Zealand’s connections across Asia-Pacific. “We said it was ‘China, and’ not ‘China, or’,” she said.
New Zealand will need to strengthen its relations in the region in the years to come, she said. “Trade is – if it is important, so is regional peace and stability.”