The final votes are tallied, resulting in a new National-led government in New Zealand following six years of Labour. Over that period, New Zealand’s relationship with China evolved significantly. What does this now mean for New Zealand’s policy toward China? Is there likely to be a major shift in approach to New Zealand’s most complex relationship?
The short answer is no. A major shift is unlikely given New Zealand’s priorities, Chinese policy and the geostrategic environment.
New Zealand’s current approach to China was outlined in a July 2023 speech to the China Business Summit. Then prime minister Chris Hipkins put forth three principles — engage and cooperate in areas of common interest, act to secure New Zealand’s interests and work with partners.
These principles align with similar formulations in liberal democracies across the world. In Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently argued that Australia ‘should cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest’.
New Zealand, like Australia, is seeking to manage differences in the relationship, push back in areas of concern while maintaining conditions for a mutually beneficial relationship. This position is clearly outlined in numerous high-level speeches and in a series of recent government publications. These include the strategic foreign policy assessment, New Zealand’s first national security strategy, a defence policy and strategy statement and the introduction of an annual publication on the security threat environment.
This is a balanced approach that highlights challenges, risks and opportunities — and seeks careful management of the relationship. It is unlikely the incoming government would move away from such an approach in favour of greater caution or a more hawkish approach.
National’s own election manifesto states as much. Its focus is on strengthening relations with traditional partners, the importance of the rules-based system of engagement between sovereign nations and on promoting vibrant trading relations, especially with India. This suggests more consistency than change in New Zealand’s China settings.
Foreign affairs tend to play only a small role in New Zealand election campaigns, and China was hardly even mentioned. In opposition, National avoided critiquing the government’s management of the China relationship, and frequently voiced support for their policies around challenging issues and the recent trade mission to China.
This suggests a strong bipartisan consensus between the two major parties around China policy. This is a consensus broadly supported by public opinion, a complex understanding of risks and opportunities in the public sector and a realisation of the value of a ‘China-plus’ trading strategy in the business sector.
The new government, like the last one, will be seeking to balance a series of competing priorities in the relationship.
The first of these sits within the government. New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional representation electoral system means the National Party had to form a coalition with the libertarian-right ACT and populist New Zealand First parties.
ACT have signalled a hawkish position on China, describing it as a threat to democracy, calling for stronger condemnation of China’s human rights record and stronger New Zealand contributions to the rules-based international order, including through increased defence spending.
New Zealand First have signalled a populist approach to China and further development of New Zealand’s more traditional partnerships, as party leader Winston Peters did as foreign minister when he was last in Parliament.
National will need to manage these positions and blunt the sharper edges of their coalition partners’ positions on China. This suggests maintaining the current balanced approach, rather than wholesale change.
Similarly, while National have traditionally focused on promoting business and trading relations in their foreign affairs — and China was the focus when they were last in government — key wins for business have already been achieved.
Though former National leader John Key continues to promote the China relationship in his business capacity, geopolitical conditions have changed considerably since 2017. This makes for a more complex set of considerations.
It makes sense for the incoming National-led government to focus on maintaining the important economic relationship, while developing relations with other markets and key diplomatic and security partners.
There may be changes on the margins and perhaps even in tone. It is likely the incoming government will remove the ban on live animal exports to China. There could be more efforts to encourage Chinese companies to bid for infrastructure projects in New Zealand. The new government may encourage Chinese electric vehicle companies to expand more into New Zealand and return to more regular trade missions to China.
But with a change of government, well-documented issues will not simply disappear. They will need to continue to be managed in a pragmatic and deliberate way, lest the possibility of an Australia-style breakdown in relations happens.
This all points to a steady-as-she-goes approach to the China relationship — an approach that seeks mutually beneficial relations to further New Zealand’s interests, but from a more complex understanding of those interests and of what is at stake.
Jason Young is Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington.