Chinese leader to visit New Zealand
By Lou Garvey
Lou Garvey is a decades long China watcher and writer based in Wellington.
Chinese President Hu Jintao is set to visit New Zealand during late October in what may turn out to be the public face of a new self interest balancing act for Wellington’s foreign policy makers.
Chinese officials have already held out the prospect of a free trade agreement between the two countries that could act as a counter-weight to Australia’s free trade negotiations with Washington.
The visit has been scheduled as the culmination of a flurry of top level Chinese diplomacy. The Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politbureau recently met with Prime Minister Helen Clark and Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Zhou Wengzhong has talked up in Auckland the prospects of the two countries uniting to pursue better access for third world countries to global agricultural markets.
New Zealand has much to gain from Chinese initiatives. Not only can it win better access for the country’s farm products to the lucrative and rapidly growing Chinese market. It can also gain leverage with Australia and the US on South Pacific and Asian matters through demonstrating that its relationship with Beijing is close and influential.
Nor is it likely to do New Zealand any harm if its bilateral relationship with Beijing is ratcheted up a notch at a time when China is a vital player in efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Washington and Beijing continue to watch each other warily. China still worries about the depth of the U.S. attachment to Taiwan while the Pentagon holds fears that current American military superiority is threatened by China’s defence modernisation programme.
New Zealand and China share an interest in ensuring that small South Pacific Island states do not fall even further down the ladder of economic basket cases. While Australia has a similar concern, its sensitivities to Asian diplomatic and military trends reflect an inclination to keep the Pacific states clear of too strong a dependence on Chinese assistance and influence.
This may have been only a minor consideration in respect of the Canberra determination to move a stabilising military and police unit into the Solomon Islands it is likely to have been one of the factors that lay behind the resolute approach the Howard Government adopted.
Canberra and Washington wish to keep the South Pacific firmly aligned with western interests, not least because in the event of uncertainties about US naval facilities in Asia, Fiji is but one of a number of potential alternatives. This is the sharp end of Australian policy to act as a deputy-Sheriff to the U.S. in the region.
What are Chinese motivations? In no particular order they include goodwill for support of Chinese interests at world forums such as the United Nations (one nation, one vote), an extension of influence by reaching out beyond Beijing’s immediate security neighbourhood in Southeast Asia and trade flows.
In respect of New Zealand, however, the particular prize it offers to Beijing is agricultural expertise. New Zealand is seen by the Chinese government as a benign provider of advisory and consultancy services that can be of considerable benefit to China’s efforts to step up farm production.
It wants also to tap into the breeding qualities of New Zealand livestock including sheep and dairy cows. Strict conditions attached to the importation of livestock into China act as a brake on levels of exports there. But should a free trade agreement come into force these may well be replaced by alternative measures beneficial to growth in live animal exports to the PRC.
With the SARS epidemic now a matter of history China can be expected to put fresh impetus on building up its drive for greater tourist numbers. This has advantages for New Zealand food suppliers because of the greater demand that will be generated for western foods within China’s hotel and restaurant businesses.
Overall, Hu Jintao and
the mini-army of senior political figures likely to
accompany him appear ready to provide New Zealand with new
opportunities to strengthen a bilateral relationship ripe
for “a big leap