Nicholas Sheppard

Is New Zealand changing its tune on China?

New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins meets China's Premier Li Qiang on his trip to Beijing (Credit: Getty images)

Is New Zealand’s prime minister changing his tune on China? Chris Hipkins said this morning that China’s greater assertiveness has led to the Pacific region becoming ‘more contested, less predictable, and less secure.’ New Zealand is reliant upon China, a country that makes up about a third of its export market. So, when Hipkins, visited Beijing last month, it was hardly a surprise that he avoided saying anything to offend his hosts. But back at home, in a speech to the China Business Summit today, Hipkins felt able to be a little more forthright in his rhetoric; yet this largely served to emphasise a disparity between the language of direct interaction, and that of reflection on principles, in this tricky, ongoing diplomatic balancing act.

Hipkins reflected on ‘New Zealand’s evolving and multifaceted relationship with China.’ He said: ‘Our region is becoming more contested, less predictable, and less secure,’ noting that this poses challenges for small countries like New Zealand that are reliant on the stability and predictability of international rules for our prosperity and security.

The PM noted three key principles that will continue to guide New Zealand’s relationship with China: engagement and cooperation in areas where the two nation’s interests converge; that New Zealand will always act to preserve, protect, and promote its national interests and our values; and that New Zealand will work with partners to advocate for approaches that reflect its interests and values.

New Zealand also has a deep interest in a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region. As a trade-dependent nation, with nearly half its trade passing through the South China Sea, continued unimpeded access to shipping and air routes is vital. But this, Hipkins suggested, doesn’t mean that New Zealand isn’t willing to stand up to China. Hipkins made a point of mentioning that he had spoken robustly during his recent visit to China.

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