Peter Williams in front of Australian & Chinese flag | Getty
Peter Williams in front of Australian & Chinese flag | Getty

Peter Williams: Who should be our best friend - Australia or China?

Peter Williams 28/05/2021

OPINION: Have you ever known a trailer for a TV programme, especially one for an Australian programme, that seems to have caused so much angst as the one doing the rounds at the moment for 60 Minutes about New Zealand’s relationships with China and Australia?

Although didn’t you find it ironic that the report on Newshub said, and I quote, “There is even a new name for Aotearoa - New Xi-land”? I mean who was the pot calling the kettle black there? Was the reporter being clever or just so stupid and ideologically compromised, that she couldn’t see what she’d just done? But it does beg the question does it not? What should be more important to New Zealand - being allies and the best of friends with Australia or being joined at the economic hip with China? 

It is a constant battle that our politicians and diplomats know they have to walk because our economic health depends on it. But should we get upset that an Australian TV show, albeit one with a huge audience, is highlighting the relationship this country enjoys with China, as Australia faces more and more challenges on that front? 

The real issue here is that if we could sell our food to other countries as easily and at the same good prices as we get from China, then New Zealand wouldn’t have to tiptoe through the balancing act it has to at the moment. That’s why Damian O’Connor’s trip to the UK next month is so important. A trade deal with the UK would help spread our risk a bit more. But look what’s happened in Britain when Australia started negotiating a trade deal - the pommy farmers start spitting the dummy and say it won’t be fair if Australia gets access. The same attitude will happen in the US. We’ve always struggled to sell into the EU. 

The point is that if we could sell all the stuff we currently put into China to the US, the UK, the EU, Japan and other liberal democracies around the world, we wouldn’t have to deal with China and could call them out diplomatically for the abusive nature of their regime. But that’s the issue. Because of the protectionist nature of the food growing industries in those places, we can’t get much of a look in. 

If the Five Eyes people want New Zealand to be totally onside with their communications about China, then help us to sell our stuff more easily in your country. But sadly there is little sign of that happening - and I see us being in thrall to the Xi Jinping administration for years to come. How do we best do the balancing act? Have things really changed in the last four years under a Labour-led government? Or are we just continuing the relationship that the Nats had before them?

I know we’ll never know what the real story is, but wasn't that story about Labour and National both just quietly firing their Chinese MPs in the middle of last year just absolutely fascinating? National’s Jian Yang and Labour’s Raymond Huo were both removed from their respective party lists before the election last year because intelligence reports found their respective connections to the Chinese Communist Party were just too close for comfort. 

But despite what Channel Nine’s audience might find out on Sunday night, I’m pretty certain that moves to diversify our export markets are very serious - you can tell that by Nanaia Mahuta’s comments on a possible storm of anger from Beijing over our political relationship with them. 

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