Ardern Diplomatic but Comments Point to Hardening of New Zealand’s Attitude to China

4 May 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Addressing the China Business Summit in Auckland, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a clear signal that her government has no illusions about China. Ms Ardern’s comment that the differences between the two countries’ systems, interests and values are becoming harder to reconcile indicates that Wellington is refining how it manages its relationship with Beijing.



Addressing the China Business Summit in Auckland on 3 May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a clear signal that her government has no illusions about China. Ms Ardern’s comments – backed up by former Prime Ministers Helen Clark and Sir John Key – indicate that Wellington is refining how it manages its relationship with Beijing while reassuring key allies such as Canberra and Washington.



In her speech to mark the opening of the China Business Summit, Ms Ardern said:

There are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree. This need not derail our relationship, it is simply a reality.

It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.

Ms Ardern reiterated the earlier comment made by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta when speaking to the New Zealand China Council that:

On many occasions New Zealand has raised issues privately with China. Where there is tension between the Dragon [China] and the Taniwha [New Zealand], we take a consistent and predictable approach, through diplomacy and dialogue.

Sometimes we will therefore find it necessary to speak out publicly on issues, like we have on developments in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and cyber incidents. At times we will do this in association with others that share our views and sometimes we will act alone.

Unfortunately for the NZ Government, while Ms Mahuta’s address contained significantly more criticisms of China than it did compliments, what captured the headlines was her response to a question posed by a journalist about whether Wellington would join its other Five Eyes partners – Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra – in using the joint intelligence-sharing arrangement as a forum to criticise China on non-security matters. In her reply, subsequently supported by Ms Ardern, Ms Mahuta noted that New Zealand would not be comfortable with such an expansion of the Five Eyes remit.

Given the attention that Ms Mahuta’s comment drew, the China Business Summit offered the PM an ideal venue in which to clarify matters, which she did, explaining that:

We take a principles-based approach to our foreign policy, and we make our decisions independently, informed by our own assessment of New Zealand’s interests and values. We have shown this quite clearly over the past year by deliberately choosing when we make public statements on issues of concern, and with whom.

In the past year, for example, we chose to raise some issues with China in private. But alongside this, we also chose to make public statements with a significant number of other countries in multilateral bodies such as the Human Rights Council. At other times we have chosen to partner with Australia, the UK, the US and other countries that share our views and values. And sometimes we spoke out alone. We have commented publicly about our grave concerns regarding the human rights situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. I have raised these concerns with senior Chinese leaders on a number of occasions.

While it may play well in the media, megaphone diplomacy leaves little to no room for face-saving on the part of China, in the way that the quieter approach favoured by NZ can do. Although construed by some as kowtowing, Wellington’s quieter, more nuanced critiques leave their recipient with potentially greater room for manoeuvre, something that can be very useful when dealing with such brittle, monolithic and inherently suspicious organisations as the Chinese Communist Party.

By speaking in such terms at precisely such an occasion, it may well be that Ms Ardern is preparing Beijing to receive greater public criticism from Wellington. At the same time, her words can also be seen as reassuring Canberra and Washington that Wellington is not soft on China.

If anything, it is a public acknowledgment that New Zealand recognises the growing volatility in the global order resulting from China’s increasingly confrontational military and economic actions and the now heightened – but previously unthinkable – danger of conflict that may eventually ensue as a result.

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