Last week was meant to be a point of triumph for Damien O'Connor as Trade Minister. As a member of the more conservative "right" faction of this Labour Government, he was happy to crow as to the success of the "updated" free trade agreement between New Zealand and the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Stuff, RNZ and TVNZ all largely reported the press release from his office about the "upgraded" agreement and for sure, for New Zealand trade access to the PRC it is largely good news, with 98% of NZ exports to be tariff free (by 2024 for dairy, notwithstanding the government's apparent tolerance for suggestions that the dairy sector be partly wound down to meet Paris Agreement commitments). There will be reductions in compliance costs and overall on the face of it, it seemed positive from the point of view of a believer in free trade.
However I was curious as to what the PRC gained from this, because none of the NZ news outlets seemed to ask any questions about that side, but repeated O'Connor's assurances that (RNZ):
"Protections in the existing agreement that are important to New Zealanders, such as our rules on overseas investment and the Treaty of Waitangi exception, remain in place"
Stuff report: "Rules for Chinese investors in New Zealand would not change in light of the agreement"
The flavour of it all is that the PRC is just like any other country, except of course we all know that it is not. It is an authoritarian one-party state that brutally suppresses dissent, is one of the world's biggest cyberwarfare actors, is engaging in military expansionism in the South China Sea, is regularly threatening liberal democratic Taiwan and most recently has effectively destroyed the liberal rule of law in Hong Kong. Most recently it has engaged in aggressive trade retaliation measures against Australia, NZ's closest ally, for it simply seeking an international investigation into its handling of Covid 19 - a pandemic that originated in China and was almost certainly mismanaged by the PRC. It isn't just another trading partner, but a regime that is antithetical to the values espoused by the NZ government, you would think.
So why not query further, given the context of relations between the Western allies and the PRC has gone downhill markedly under the rule of Xi Jinping?
Yet it takes little curiosity to find out what was being reported by the PRC's series of state news outlets about the free trade agreement:
China Daily published the following image:
It shows that NZ has effectively removed tariffs on ALL imports from the PRC, putting it on a parallel with Australia. Now I'm no opponent of eliminating tariff barriers, but you'd think that there would be at least some querying of this. PRC businesses can now export to NZ on the same basis as those from Australia, and with no further barriers NZ has little more to "give away" to Beijing in future negotiations.
The PRC gets new market access in legal services, project and management consultancy services in NZ, which may not seem like a big deal, but do NZ companies have equivalent access in the PRC? Well it's a bit complicated as it depends on the sector, but NZ is much more open than the PRC on this. For example, for project management, it HAS to be a joint venture in the PRC, but not in NZ. In construction NZ is already open to PRC firms, but the PRC wont let NZ firms enter unless it is a project fully foreign financed (i.e. you pay for it, you can work on it). One wonders why it was seen to be so important to let PRC firms enter markets in NZ that they are unlikely to add much value on, other than perhaps obtain experience and IP that they can use elsewhere.
Yet there is something far more alarming in the agreement, which is the provision on foreign investment.
Global Times, which might be described as the "aggressive" arm of the PRC state news propaganda apparatus said that:
"Under the new protocol, New Zealand will not investigate Chinese government investors with investments of no more than NZ$100 million ($71.82 million) or non-government investors with investments of no more than NZ$200 million, China News Service reported."
Now sure, that does mean that PRC investment is on a parallel with the CPTPP threshold, but let's pause a moment. All PRC owned businesses invest in NZ with the explicit or implicit authority of the PRC and the Communist Party of China. Experience elsewhere indicates that this intent may be anything but benign. PRC companies are known to engage in industrial scale Intellectual Property theft both domestically with foreign partners and internationally. This is hardly a surprise, as it is the core of Marxist-Leninist belief to use the systems of capitalist countries against them, with IP theft used both to advance its own industries and for military purposes. For example, Siemen's entered into a JV in China to produce high speed trains, only to find that its majority PRC JV partners now re-exporting its technology to compete with it in Germany. By law, all PRC citizens and businesses are required to comply with directions from the State security services wherever they may be, which is seen to be one reason why Australia's supplies of PPE were raided by PRC companies and citizens to be exported to China at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic (which resulted in Australian law being changed to stop this).
PRC government entities can spend NZ$100m buying any property or business in NZ without any scrutiny or oversight, and non-government but government endorsed entities can invest NZ$200m. Sure there are many laws in NZ to deal with intellectual property theft, after the fact, but the trade practices of the PRC internationally show that it has little interest in rule of law, given how quickly it has embarked on dubious sanctions against Australia, because Australia simply wanted some questions asked. That's how sensitive the tyrants in Beijing are.
So there are some serious questions to be asked as to the upgraded NZ-PRC free trade agreement that haven't been asked by the media.
Yet O'Connor went much much further. On CNBC he played a tune that is familiar to China-watchers, which is to get the ally of an adversary to take on the adversary in foreign relations. Besides saying "nationalism is not the way forward" (being absolutely blind to the PRC's hyper-nationalism in recent years), he decided to give Australia some "advice":
“I can’t speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships but clearly if they were to follow us and … speak …(with) a little more diplomacy from time to time, and be cautious with wording… hopefully (they) can be in a similar situation"
"Speak with a little more diplomacy" presumably means ignoring the PRC's grotesque mismanagement of Covid19 that resulted in it being spread globally, not signing up with allies on a statement on the breaching of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, not complaining if PRC businesses and citizens buy up the PPE and medical equipment in your country to export it to China during a pandemic and then finger-pointing at your closest ally on command. O'Connor supported mediating between the PRC and Australia because:
"We have a mature … relationship with China, and we’ve always been able to raise issues of concern"
Of course in part he is echoing Nanaia Mahuta who in December said that NZ could mediate between the PRC and Australia - which is exactly a tactic that Beijing wants. This call is utterly disgraceful, and essentially represents the tyranny in Beijing peeling the NZ government away from its most important trading and defence partner, to effectively imply that the differences between Australia and the PRC are as much Australia's fault as the PRC. It is Beijing asserting that there is moral equivalence between Australia and the PRC.
"Raising matters of concern" is how the PRC likes things to be, for there to be diplomatic back-channel talk, whilst not publicly changing the relationship at all. It means the PRC can break international treaties, threaten its neighbours and engage in aggressive actions internationally whilst the front window looks like a new free trade agreement and all is well.
Beijing already used the NZ government as a pawn to attack Australia in this report by saying:
"The current difficulties facing bilateral relations are of Australia's own making. Only a real change in Canberra's hostile attitude towards China can ease the tensions, and reset bilateral trade ties between the two sides."
"Australia's provoking and smearing will only damage its reputation among Chinese enterprises and people, and hurt trade relations, Chen said, noting that "Canberra should consider Wellington as model and restore its relations with China by taking concrete action."
In short, Beijing claims that Australia's concerns, over Covid 19, Hong Kong, investment, South China Sea and Taiwan are not issues New Zealand shares similar concerns about. "Wellington is a model" of obsequiousness.
The extension of this is that New Zealand is also not aligned with the United States, which looks like seeing little change in policy with Biden compared to Trump over China.
NZ is, after all, almost irrelevant to the PRC, because NZ has virtually no military capacity to project and its trade potential is minimal, but NZ does have a great deal of intellectual property around agriculture and capacity to provide education for its elite. Australia is more important because its mineral reserves are vast and arguably the easiest to access of any major mining country given its legal/political structure, proximity and infrastructure, but also because it is strategically important militarily.
Beijing thinks it has turned NZ into a "neutral" party between itself and NZ's two biggest allies, and the fact that it has so easily played Damien O'Connor, and to a lesser extent Nanaia Mahuta should cause concern in the government and to New Zealanders more generally.
So what Beijing got out of the updated FTA with NZ was much more than unhindered trade access to a small economy, and almost unhindered investment access, it got a new friend that has broken away from Australia - that's worth much more strategically than access to a market the size of part of Shanghai.
So the next time Jacinda Ardern chooses to berate Australia over either its treatment of New Zealand citizens resident in Australia, or climate change, or indeed any other foreign policy issue, she might just wonder why the great ANZAC ally might just tell her to go ask the government's new mates in Beijing to help out, then she can wait and see if O'Connor might have enough time to spare once he has washed himself up after being ever so gratifying to the Communist Party of China.