Political Roundup: Jacinda Ardern strikes a softer tone on China

By Geoffrey Miller

Today’s speech by Jacinda Ardern to the China Business Summit in Auckland was full of soothing words for Beijing.

The headline-grabber was Ardern’s comment that ‘a few plans are afoot’ for New Zealand ministers to return to China – and that the Prime Minister herself hopes to return to the country ‘to renew and refresh in-person connections’.

This might come sooner than we think. While China’s current elimination approach to Covid-19 heavily restricts in-person travel, New Zealand’s own experience shows how quickly these settings can change. After abandoning its own zero-covid policy, New Zealand this week fully re-opens to all visitors.

Expressing a willingness to travel to China – even if it is not currently possible to so – is a signal in itself.

A recurring theme during Ardern’s speech and the subsequent Q&A was the importance of marking this year’s 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Wellington.

- Sponsor Promotion -

Calling New Zealand’s relationship with China as ‘one of our most important’, Ardern pointed to the ‘long history of engagement, and of beneficial interactions between our governments, our people, cultures and in commerce’.

Indeed, throughout the speech, Ardern was mild with her criticism of China and optimistic about the health and future of the bilateral relationship.

This does not mean that the speech was entirely a one-way street – Ardern said that New Zealand would continue to ‘speak out’ on contentious issues such as ‘economic coercion, human rights, Xinjiang and Hong Kong’.

But none of this was new – Ardern has cited these same issues in similar speeches before. And in the context of an address that was overwhelmingly positive towards China, the enumeration of the thorny issues on which Beijing and Wellington do not see eye-to-eye felt more like an obligatory recitation than a serious attempt at criticism.

In the speech itself, Ardern made only a single reference to Taiwan, on which she called New Zealand’s approach ‘consistent’ – a rather placative word she also deployed at several other times during the speech. But unsurprisingly, the Taiwan issue also topped the Q&A session afterwards, especially in relation to rumours of a potential visit there this week by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In response, Ardern noted that ‘dialogue and diplomacy remain key’. And she continued to deploy these and other China-friendly phrasings – such as ‘de-escalation’ – to stave off the more sensitive sections of the interactive session. These very tactical ‘d-words’ also made multiple appearances in the speech itself.

Taken as a whole, then, Ardern’s speech seemed to strike a softer and friendlier tone towards China than might be expected given the overall deterioration in bilateral relations between Wellington and Beijing this year.

Of all of New Zealand’s shifts towards the West this year– and there have been many – Beijing seemed most irked by the Prime Minister’s participation at the NATO summit in Madrid in late June and by the hawkish joint statement issued after Jacinda Ardern met Joe Biden in the White House at the end of May.

Both actions met with swift and sharp rebukes from China. While Beijing imposed no further penalty, there is no guarantee that New Zealand will keep escaping punishment if it continues down this bolder path.

Of course, Jacinda Ardern is adept at tailoring her speeches to her audiences. Today’s summit would have always been a chance to express a more China-friendly position. After all, Wang Xiaolong, China’s Ambassador to New Zealand, was listening in the front of the audience – and Ardern greeted him as she left the stage.

Still, the Prime Minister’s speech today continued an attempt at rhetorical recalibration that seemed to begin with her addresses in early July to Chatham House in London and the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

In London, Ardern defended China’s right to be involved in the Pacific and talked up the need for diplomacy and dialogue. In Sydney, she rejected the idea of a ‘democracy vs autocracy’ contest in the aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Ardern’s Lowy Institute speech also heavily emphasised the notion of New Zealand having an ‘independent foreign policy’ – the phrase or variations of it were deployed no fewer than seven times – and her address to the China Business Summit today continued this theme.

Noting once again that New Zealand aimed to be ‘consistent’, Ardern said the country had for ‘decades’ adopted a ‘fiercely independent foreign policy driven by our assessment of our interests and values’.

This will go down well with Beijing: several recent official Chinese statements on the bilateral relationship have approvingly cited the phrase. The embassy’s account of a virtual meeting held between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his New Zealand counterpart Nanaia Mahuta in mid-June – when tensions were particularly high – cited Beijing’s ‘respect for New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.’

China’s liking for the phrase is not without good reason. After all, the origins of the ‘independent foreign policy’ lie in New Zealand’s rift with the United States in the 1980s over the Fourth Labour Government’s nuclear-free policy.

Wellington may have largely patched up its relations with Washington since then, but New Zealand has never been fully reintegrated into the ANZUS defence alliance – a situation that Beijing would no doubt like to see continue.

The theme of the China Business Summit this year is ‘A Balancing Act’. And certainly, the softer line on China today and in recent speeches could be driven by a realisation on the part of Ardern that New Zealand had gone too far with its pro-Western foreign policy in the first half of the year.

The bigger international picture might also provide an opening for a less hardline and more nuanced approach to relations between East and West. In July, Wang Yi signalled a potential thaw in tensions with Australia, saying ‘the Chinese side is willing to take the pulse, recalibrate, and set sail again’. And Joe Biden’s virtual meeting with Xi Jinping last week was the first direct communication between the pair since March.

Of course, this positivity over rhetoric needs to be set against the substance. And on that front, the picture looks rather bleak. After all, Xi used his phone call to tell Biden ‘if you play with fire you get burned’ – a reference to the rumours that Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan this week.

Against this grim global backdrop, Ardern’s more generous, critical friend approach towards China will be popular with Beijing.

But time will tell whether it is anything more than just talk.

Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.

Further reading on international relations today
Newshub: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants to visit China to ‘seize new opportunities’
Audrey Young (Herald): Jacinda Ardern: NZ opens arms to students and tourists from China
Shane Jones (Herald): We need to maximise our trade potential with China (paywalled)
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): NZ targets defence policy reset amid US-China fallout in the Pacific
Vaimoana Mase (Herald): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads to Samoa as international borders reopen
Gianina Schwanecke (Stuff): Russia bans 32 more Kiwis from entering country in retaliation for sanctions
Reuben Steff (Newsroom): NZ can’t kick the can on global crises
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Independence, not neutrality, for NZ foreign policy
Other items of interest and importance today

Thomas Manch (Stuff): Government to close NZ First Foundation ‘loophole’ in electoral law
Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): Undisclosed money threatens next election
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Cabinet to consider urgent law change to close donations loophole

ODT: Editorial – Maturity missing on reform
Claire Trevett (Herald): Money and politics – the troubling mess of donation laws and attempts to outwit them (paywalled)
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Political donations law changes: Clock ticking ahead of election
Claire Trevett (Herald): National, Act say Labour’s electoral donation reforms attempt to ‘screw the scrum’
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Political donation reform on the cards as Greens call for ‘loophole’ closure
Brent Edwards (NBR): Act calculates cost of lower disclosure threshold for donations(paywalled)
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Two dinners, a $90,000 imperial robe and a hall full of evidence
Amy Williams (RNZ): Money trail in Nats and Labour ‘sham donors’ trial unfolding in High Court
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Week 1 of the Labour and National political donations trial and what’s next

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Green leadership race begins as MP complains of ‘nefarious deeds’, others eye candidacy (paywalled)
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): James Shaw deserves the attack on his Green Party leadership (paywalled)
Josie Pagani (Stuff): Green plotters are wrong: James Shaw is a radical achieving as much as he can
Emile Donovan (RNZ): The Green Party’s philosophical tug-of-war
William Hewett (Newshub): Former Greens MP Kevin Hague backs James Shaw, says he’s ‘achieved more’ on climate than every previous minister, Government

William Hewett (Newshub): Green Party leadership challenge: MPs Jan Logie, Teanau Tuiono rule themselves out of running for co-leader
1News: Green MP Teanau Tuiono not running for co-leader
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): Removing Shaw as Greens co-leader won’t lead to stronger climate change policy
Chris Trotter: The Greens’ unhappy relationship with power
Colin Peacock (RNZ): Greens’ grass roots ‘revolt’ excites media
Hayden Munro (Herald): Green Party’s James Shaw knows climate action needs parliamentary power not protest (paywalled)
RNZ: Green Party co-leader nominations open
1News: Julie Anne Genter not seeking Green Party co-leadership
Steve Braunias (Herald): The secret diary of James Shaw (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The Greens only have themselves to blame for this phantom coup
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): By capitulating to Māori Capitalism, James Shaw proves why he should be rolled

Gareth Vaughan (Interest): Politics + monetary policy = a political schmozzle?
Janet Wilson (Stuff): You can’t reduce inflation by throwing more money around
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Targeted living cost payments no bullseye, say advocates
Liam Dann (Herald): Nation of Debt: Just how much does every Kiwi owe now?(paywalled)
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): Zero income but no cost of living payment from government (paywalled)
1News: Ardern rejects claim Govt spending making inflation worse
Melanie Carroll (Stuff): What is the risk of a recession for New Zealand?
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Unemployment figures expected to show labour market ‘as tight as a drum’
Kevin Norquay (Stuff): We are spending less on the things that make us happy, thanks to Covid
Harshal Chitale (Stuff): We must fight inflation now or pay a higher price
Paula Bennett (Herald): The job market is in crisis and welfare numbers don’t tally(paywalled)
Michael Neilson (Herald): Benefit incomes up 40pc on 2018 – Ministry of Social Development report
Daniel Smith (Stuff): Businesses trial four day working week but expert says employers should go even further
Liam Dann (Herald): Making sense of the Reserve Bank pile-on (paywalled)
Brent Edwards (NBR): Treasury begins paying for losses incurred by the Reserve Bank(paywalled)
David Hargreaves (Interest): How hot will the labour market be? And what will the RBNZ make of it?
Richard Harman: Reserve Bank “played with fire” (paywalled)
Andy Fyers (BusinessDesk): Everyone feels the inflation pain this time (paywalled)
Catherine Hubbard (Stuff): Fishing company boss to work on factory floor as labour shortage bites
Liam Dann (Herald): NZ’s inflation problem: It could be worse – and it is in many countries(paywalled)
Rob Stock (Stuff): New Zealanders overseas face mounting student loan debt
Herald: What would a monetary policy review mean for the Reserve Bank?

Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Labours leadership is inept, irresponsible and chaotic
Matthew Hooton (Herald): Danger on the left, risk on the right (paywalled)
Pete McKenzie (North & South): The Man in the shadows
1News: Class politics in Western democracies are changing – expert
Liam Dann (Herald): Grant Robertson: ‘I loved him, he was my father but I never really forgave him’
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): TDB Cabinet Top 10 Rankings
Brian Easton (Pundit): Turmoil in the National caucus
Alison Mau (Stuff): The figures just don’t stack up for big-talker Brian Tamaki
Bill Ralston (Listener/Herald): Searching for a bright spot in NZ’s bleak, cold winter of discontent (paywalled)
Larry McMyler (RNZ): Youth MPs call for improved civics education in NZ schools
Luke Malpass (Stuff): ACT and the Greens: two very different parties, two similar trajectories
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Govt hires for income insurance scheme despite timing concerns
Thomas Going (Stuff): Make lowering voting age an issue for Parliament
Audrey Young (Herald): Three MPs exempt from wearing masks in Parliament all from Act
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Simon Bridges wants to start a new life, but strangers keep flashing him
Newshub: Michael Wood, Nicola Willis quizzed on whether they want Labour, National’s top jobs

Graham Adams (The Platform): Talk of a coup ratchets up Three Waters debate
Herald: Editorial: Three Waters seems to have blocked Government’s ears (paywalled)
ODT: Calls for national referendum
The Facts: Summary of 10 Three Waters polls
Thomas Manch (Stuff): LGNZ asks Government to delay stormwater handover in Three Waters reforms
1News: Compromise could see Three Waters become Two Waters
Grant Miller (ODT): Three Waters: Jacinda Ardern’s governance message greeted with scepticism by southern leaders
Cate Macintosh (Stuff): No timeframe for fluoridating Christchurch’s water, while misinformation grows
Adan E. Suazo (Newsroom): No resolving water conflicts without trust

Deena Coster (Stuff): ‘White anxiety’ and the quest for power-sharing in Aotearoa
Deena Coster (Stuff): The idea of sharing power in Aotearoa doesn’t need to be scary
George Driver (North & South): The Fate of our national estate
Elizabeth Rata: In Defence of democracy
Anthony Poole (Open inquiry): It’s time to speak up against the New Racists
Wilhelmina Shrimpton (Today FM): Let’s stop racism before it starts

Andrea Vance (Stuff): National accuses Government of ‘sanctimonious talk’ on transparency
Andrea Vance (Stuff): How flawed freedom of information system keep the public in the dark
Nikki Macdonald (Stuff): Official information law is a horse and cart on a Formula One race track – former ombudsman
Peter Boshier (Stuff): The changes our official information watchdog wants to see
Nikki Macdonald (Stuff): ‘Delay is the killer’ – why our OIA watchdog isn’t working
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Gagging the official information act: why new secrecy clauses are a worry
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Ombudsman raps police over ‘no surprises’ policy for Ministers
Lisa Woods (Stuff): Accountability, transparency are the victims of a flawed law
No Right Turn: Why we need an OIA review
Ella Somers (BusinessDesk): Transparency International, Council for Civil Liberties call for urgent stats bill amendments (paywalled)
Charlie Mitchell (Stuff): The Government has built a data colossus – is it playing with fire?
Phil Pennington (RNZ): Head in the clouds? Call for NZ to take control of data storage

Duncan Greive (Spinoff): The Te Puke Affair: How Morning Report saw a social media flub and smelled a cover-up
Mark Jennings (Newshub): TVNZ news boss a scapegoat in Santamaria affair
Damien Venuto (Herald): Kamahl Santamaria saga: Why TVNZ news boss Paul Yurisich had to go
Tom Dillane (Herald): The short turbulent tenure of Paul Yurisich as head of TVNZ news and current affairs (paywalled)
Stuff: The Kamahl Santamaria scandal at TVNZ, why it matters and what next
Herald: TVNZ’s Head of News Paul Yurisich who hired ex-Breakfast host Kamahl Santamaria resigns
Melanie Earley and Alison Mau (Stuff): Kamahl Santamaria scandal claims head of TVNZ news boss as review criticises hiring of key presenters
1News: TVNZ news boss quits after review finds failures recruiting Santamaria
Colin Peacock (RNZ): Criticism of mini-doco funding hits a dead end
André Chumko (Stuff): Warning over social media news proves new media entity needed ‘more than ever’
Sophie Cornish (Stuff): Social media giants agree to ‘first of its kind’ code of conduct in Aotearoa
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): It’s time for a Misinformation Minister
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): NZ code to tackle disinformation: what have Google and Meta really agreed to do?

David Skipwith (Stuff): Conflict brewing ahead of TVNZ-RNZ merger over journalists promoting brands on social media
RNZ: New state broadcasting entity passes first hurdle
Dita De Boni (NBR): Nats rail against TVNZ/RNZ merger (paywalled)
RNZ: Public media legislation takes another step

Kelly Dennett (Stuff): New Zealand is fully reopening to the world, but how prepared are we?
Chris Hyde (Stuff): What will a near-fully reopened New Zealand look like?
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): The ‘Immigration Rebalance’: What it is and why it matters


  1. love the way people like bob and nathan think china is in any way communist or socialist it’s so endearingly quaint, like granny telling you all about the old days.

Comments are closed.