OPINION: A fortnight ago I was winging my way to Australia, getting ready to head to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank, to trade notes on how our respective countries feel about their engagement with Asia.
My visit took place a few weeks after the release of the Lowy Institute’s Poll 2019, which canvassed Australians on their attitudes to the world. Australians gave New Zealand a warmth ranking of 86 percent and rated us their country’s “best friend”. (And if you missed the news at the time, Australians rated our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as the global leader they had the most confidence in, even ahead of their just-elected Scott Morrison).
Likewise, the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s annual Perceptions of Asia confirms that New Zealanders consider Australia to be our friendliest country.
The two surveys show other similarities in the way Australians and New Zealanders see the world. The Lowy Poll revealed Australians’ trust in China had declined significantly over the last 12 months, and three-quarters felt their country was too dependent on China economically. Trust in the United States declined only slightly but has been on a “downward trajectory” since 2011.
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In New Zealand, the Perceptions of Asia poll found more New Zealanders consider China, the United States and Russia as threatening, compared to last year. New Zealanders, in short, generally don’t like superpowers.
Over my week in Australia, we also visited Canberra and Perth. What we’ve noticed previously is that conversations in Australia about Asia tend to cross the Tasman not long after. If my theory stands, New Zealand is likely to have more difficult China-related conversations over the coming months.
Much of our discussion in Australia was focussed on the degree to which China might impact New Zealand and the region around us. Some in Australia (like Professor Hugh White, who has recently released his book How to Defend Australia) argue that Australia should invest more in defence as the US-Australia military alliance weakens and China rises as the Asia-Pacific’s primary power. White is due to give a lecture – “How to defend New Zealand” – in Wellington in early September so we can anticipate some similar conversations here.
As Australia is a federation of states, it was interesting to see the variance between the federal and state governments. At the federal level, security concerns dominated when it came to China, while at the state level the focus was generally on investment and business.
Our visit finished in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world – it is closer to Jakarta than Canberra – while also being in the most populous time zone which includes China and the Philippines.
We heard Chinese investment in Australia alone was greater than the total Marshall Plan, the American initiative of the 1940s that saw the United States gift more than $12 billion (about $100 billion in real terms) to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
Chinese investment in Western Australia appears well-accepted, with the locals seeing it as delivering significant benefits. Moreover, we heard Perth’s private sector has become more sophisticated and China-savvy in setting the right terms for investment and in business deals.
Equally, Chinese businesspeople engaging with Australia were also becoming more sophisticated in their interactions, including in the questions they asked, their willingness to learn and consult.
For me, the main takeaway was that New Zealand will need to chart a thoughtful course in its engagement with China. We need to grow our collective China literacy and get ready to manage inevitable bumps in the road. The days of shipping products to China with no regard for international politics are pretty much over.
The Australian experience suggests we will need to be surgical in saying what we do support and what we don’t. Even silence means something when people are looking closely at what you do or don’t say.
We were in Australia not long after clashes between Chinese students and pro-Hong Kong protesters at the University of Queensland. Australia’s foreign minister issued a warning to foreign diplomats against interference in free speech after a Chinese diplomat backed the “patriotic behaviour” of the pro-Beijing students.
Not long after, news emerged here of a scuffle between pro-Beijing supporters and pro-Hong Kong democracy students at the University of Auckland. And then we heard the Chinese consulate general in Auckland had issued a formal statement praising the pro-Beijing students for opposing the protesters.
As an ex-diplomat, a key tenant of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is the principle that you don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of your host state.
It seems to me the consulate general issuing a statement supporting one side of a protest is at the least a breach of the spirit of that principle. It’s the sort of thing we may need to be ready to call out a bit more if we are to have the type of mature relationship we want with China, and the rest of Asia.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.