Ardern faces some hard choices
By Richard Harman (author)
Confirmation on Friday that China’s President, Xi Jinping, could not meet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday fortnight was not unexpected.
Though a meeting in either October or December had been planned for by Wellington throughout the year, POLITIK understands the Chinese were cagey about discussing any details with New Zealand.
The postponement will have officials in Wellington worried as it comes at a time when more pressure is being put on allies by the US to take actions against China.
What one former senior diplomat has called the "contracting space between the US and China" leaves New Zealand with little room to manouevre and some hard choices to make.
The meeting with President Xi was supposed to have been confirmed when Ardern met Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang during the East Asian summit in Singapore two weeks ago.
Li had issued the original invitation during the East Asia summit in Manila in November 2017.
Not only was the Prime Minister to meet the President – a big enough event in itself --- but she was also expected to open the new New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, the size of which would have been a very obvious reminder of the importance of the relationship with China.
Planning for the visit was carrying on until very recently.
The Prime Minister’s office had even suggested the Press Gallery shift the date of their annual Christmas Party to account for the potential absence of a number of journalists.
Ardern’s short statement on Friday simply said “we had been hoping that the visit would be this year, but it has been difficult to find a time that suits everyone.”
“All capitals are busy approaching the end of the year, and Beijing is no exception.
“The PM is looking forward to visiting China at the earliest opportunity.
“China is one of New Zealand’s most important international relationships.
“Visiting Beijing will build on her constructive discussions with Premier Li at the East Asia Summit earlier this month, where a visit was discussed again.
“It was agreed during those discussions that there is much on which our two countries can work together. “
That may be so, but it is likely New Zealand is going to come under increasing pressure to adopt a less aggressively pro-China stance than it did under the previous Government.
There have already been signals that things are changing; the criticism of China in the Defence Policy statement and the Pacific reset designed to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific.
The enxt flash point is likely to be the proposal by Spark to use the Chinese company, Huawei to provide the technology for its 5G network.
The “Wall Street Journal” has reported that The U.S. government has initiated an extraordinary outreach campaign to foreign allies, trying to persuade wireless and internet providers in these countries to avoid telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co.
“American officials have briefed their government counterparts and telecom executives in friendly countries where Huawei equipment is already in wide use, including Germany, Italy and Japan, about what they see as cybersecurity risks, these people said,” the paper said on Friday.
“ Some officials see the initiative as part of a broader technological Cold War between U.S.-led allies and China for control of a world that is increasingly digitally connected—and thus increasingly vulnerable to surveillance and malfeasance.
“The initiative also coincides with rising tensions between Washington and Beijing on other fronts this year as the Trump administration moves to counter what some U.S. officials say they see as years of unbridled Chinese aggression.
“Washington has placed tariffs on some imports from China, drawing retaliation from Beijing.
“The U.S. has also tightened up foreign-investment rules targeting Chinese deal making. “
The US pressure will be felt in New Zealand because we are a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing arrangement.
It might be expected that other partners in the agreement, particularly the United Kingdom and Australia, will share the US concerns.
New Zealand has bucked those pressures before.
In 2012 the US House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee urged American firms to stop doing business with Huawei and fellow Chinese firm ZTE, saying China could use their equipment to spy and for cyber attacks.
The same year, the Australian government barred Huawei from involvement in its A$37 billion National Broadband Network initiative.
But last year Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei met Prime Minister Bill English in Wellington on Tuesday to discuss plans, to spend $400 million in New Zealand over the next five years.
Ren said in a statement that "New Zealand's open and fair trade environment" and its emphasis on developing new technology had facilitated Huawei's ongoing commitment.
Then Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges said the investment would "touch many areas of the economy and open up global opportunities for New Zealand".
The relationship, which started with the mobile company, 2Degrees, has now expanded to Spark with whom Huawei have a five-year strategic agreement.
Huawei has also been a major player in the rollout of the Ultra Fast Broadband project.
Now Spark wants it to be a supplier for its 5G network.
Earlier this month Spark CEO Simon Moutter told his company’s shareholders that unless the government could table "incontrovertible evidence" that Huawei's gear posed a national security threat, the Chinese company should be allowed to pitch for Spark's 5G mobile network upgrade.
The company's deputy CEO, Andrew Bowater, however, says the company is aware of the sensitivities and will not bid for the core parts of the network but will restrict itself to providing transmitting and receiving gear on cellphone towers.
Bowater said Huawei was "aware of sensitivities" and "frankly, it's not worth the hassle".
But Australia has gone further than that.
In August the Australian government banned Huawei from playing a role in any 5G rollouts due to national security issues.
The postponement of the Prime Minister’s visit may be an indication of the pressures New Zealand is facing from Beijing to maintain its previous more supportive relationship with China.
But it is obviously also under strong pressure from its “traditional allies” to synchronise its relationship with China more closely with them.