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New Zealand’s Beijing Ties to Remain ‘Consistent’ Even as China Hawk Returns as Foreign Minister

As the swearing-in of New Zealand’s new coalition government concludes on Monday, the Pacific nation’s stand-out diplomacy with Beijing is likely to prevail despite the presence of old and new China hawks and hard-right politicians in Wellington, analysts say.

A three-party bloc led by new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, leader of the centre-right National Party, not only necessitated a negotiation that splits the deputy role between nationalist New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and right-wing ACT Party’s David Seymour, it would also keep New Zealand’s foreign policy balanced, said China-New Zealand expert Jason Young.

Peters will be deputy until 31 May 2025, when Seymour takes over. Peters also takes on the foreign affairs portfolio while Seymour is also the minister for regulation.

While Peters is a veteran politician who is on his third stint as foreign minister and had run-ins with Beijing in the past, it does not mean he will not try to prioritise New Zealand in his dealings with China, said Young, who is an associate professor in political science and international relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

Peters’ skirmishes with Beijing include calling for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and later telling Chinese ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi to “listen to her master” after the Chinese embassy issued a statement reminding Wellington of the one-China policy.

“New Zealand’s coalition government is likely to maintain a consistent approach to major partners, including China,” said Young, who is also director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre.

“As in any coalition arrangement with three parties, foreign policy usually becomes centrist, suggesting we are likely to see more consistency than change,” he added.

Wellington has successfully walked the tightrope of calling out China on its aggressions in the Pacific region and exercising diplomacy with Beijing.

Former leader Jacinda Ardern was tough on China but had said there was no need for retaliation and more need for dialogue.

Chris Hipkins, her Labour Party successor following her resignation earlier this year, concluded a “warm and constructive” visit in June to Beijing, where he chose not to agree with US President Joe Biden’s remark that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a “dictator”.

In terms of relations with Pacific nations, Peters is likely to want to pick up from where he left off with his “Pacific Reset” policy that he launched in 2018 when he was last foreign minister in Ardern’s cabinet, said Geoffrey Miller, a New Zealand geopolitical analyst at the Democracy Project.

The policy involved an increase in New Zealand’s aid budget for the Pacific region and more interactions between New Zealand and the United States and countries that were becoming wary of China’s actions in the region, Miller said.

With more hawkish attitudes among Western nations towards China now than seven years ago, Peters might feel confident to take his Pacific Reset “to the next level”, although there was a safety switch, he said.

“Peters will only be one of several ministers deciding the future shape of New Zealand’s international relations. The trade and defence ministers are both from the National Party and both are seasoned politicians who will be well aware of Peters’ views,” Miller said.

Further, former business executive Luxon is focused on his key goal of fixing New Zealand’s economy and making sure he sends the right international messages, particularly those that underpin the country’s solid trading relations, Miller said.

“[Luxon’s] National Party has a strong rural base, which if anything became stronger at the last election. China is still New Zealand’s biggest trading partner by far, so Luxon’s own party faithful would have a lot to lose if New Zealand’s relations with China soured,” Miller said.

New Zealand political commentator and foreign policy expert Reuben Steff said Peters might seek to strengthen the country’s ties with the US but would avoid confrontations with Beijing given New Zealand’s trade relations with China.

Stephen Jacobi, New Zealand trade expert and executive director of the NZ International Business Forum, remained wary but was comforted by Peters’ experience as a foreign minister who was aware of China’s importance to New Zealand and an absence of “anti-China” rhetoric in his election campaign.

The possibility of New Zealand joining Aukus, the alliance between Australia, Britain and the US, however, could resurface especially with both Peters and Seymour supportive of the move, experts said.

“Given his past views, Winston Peters is likely to support at least further exploration of the idea or, with a US election year coming up, perhaps to play for more time,” Miller said.

Peters’ view that the Pacific has to keep an eye on the power contest in the region aligned with his stance that Aukus made the region “safer” through deterrence, Steff noted.

He would be supported by his co-deputy, Seymour of the libertarian ACT Party, who has shown an interest in Wellington joining “Pillar Two”, or the non-nuclear aspect, of the pact, and doubling the country’s defence budget, Steff added.

“In reality, the decision will not be left up to Winston Peters alone. The Aukus issue is one of the biggest foreign policy decisions facing New Zealand in a generation,” Miller said.

With the 10th anniversary of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to New Zealand coming up next year, and the presence of former New Zealand prime minister and China-friendly John Key as an adviser to Luxon, the new prime minister would be unlikely to make decisions that would send New Zealand-China relations veering off course, Miller said.

Source : SCMP