Sir John: The Key to helping ordinary Kiwis understand China

Andy Boreham
John Key was the leader of New Zealand from 2008 until 2016, during which time he made seven state visits to China and became friends with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Andy Boreham

Directed by Andy Boreham.

Editor's note:

Andy Boreham had a video interview with former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key, where they discussed trade, how Donald Trump ruined China's global image, why Nancy Pelosi shouldn't have visited Taiwan, and how the relationship between New Zealand and China might look in the future.

On this day, exactly half a century ago, my home country New Zealand entered an official relationship with China.

My mom and dad hadn't even met when the third Labour government signed a joint communique with Beijing in December 1972.

Fast forward 50 years and many milestones have been reached: our support was key to China joining the World Trade Organization; New Zealand was the first country to recognize China as a market economy, and the first developed nation to enter a free trade agreement with the "Middle Kingdom."

The international situation has soured over the past few years, though, with global tensions at an all time high. Public opinion toward China has taken a hit, especially after three years of closed borders thanks to COVID-19.

But an unlikely Kiwi has become one of the more reasonable voices when it comes to China: former Prime Minister Sir John Key.

Key was the leader of New Zealand from 2008 until 2016, during which time he made seven state visits to China and became friends with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"Every time I came to China ... the (Chinese) leadership were incredibly accommodating, encouraging, did everything they could to make the trip successful," Key told me on a video call from his Auckland home. "I would count (Xi) as a friend, I think I've got to know him pretty well."

Just before COVID-19 shut down the opportunity for travel between the two countries, Key visited his friend Xi on a personal trip in 2019, where he was welcomed with open arms.

But some so-called "China experts" and media commentators back in New Zealand criticized his close relationship with China and questioned why he was remaining so close. Key doesn't agree with that mentality, and thinks it's important to have China "in the room."

"Show me any relationship ... that helps build a better relationship when you cut people off or you spend your life yelling and screaming at them. How does that really change anything?" he said. "The reality is that actually you get progress in any relationship ... when you have a good working relationship, not when you're standing at ten paces shouting with each other."

Sir John: The Key to helping ordinary Kiwis understand China

Key has been trying to offer a reasonable voice on China so that the relationship between the two countries can continue to flourish. He noted that many people have been trying to craft China into a "bogyman," one major reason now being the premise that Beijing is getting ready to invade Taiwan.

"Pretty much most major Westernized democracies recognize China's territorial integrity over Hong Kong, or over Taiwan. This is not new. We have a One China policy, as does Australia and America and many other countries and by that we say 'one country, many systems.'"

He feels that some anti-China voices are scaremongering over the fact that China is, like every emerging superpower, building up its military. But he doesn't believe for a second that is in order to enter Taiwan.

"I don't think personally in my lifetime that will ever happen," he said.

And that's why he was so against former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan earlier this year.

"I thought it was pretty reckless, actually," he told me. "She's at the end of her political career. To go and take a delegation to Taiwan is really poking the bear, isn't it? I mean, you're not achieving anything, all you're doing is putting some friction into things and really, you know, kind of forcing a response from Beijing."

Key said he thought Beijing's response to the trip was "pretty measured."

But the current antagonistic US attitude toward China started during the Donald Trump administration, he reckons. "Because there's a big trade imbalance between the United States and China, (Trump) perceives that to be the US losing and China winning. The fact that the reason there's such a big imbalance is because China produces a lot of stuff that US consumers want to buy, seems to be very lost on him, so he needed to create for those people that vote him ... a reason why they were doing badly, going backward."

Back to the New Zealand-China relationship, Key believes trade and exchanges are important for both sides.

"China, of course, has emerged as our largest trading partner for goods and services up until and pre-COVID, the largest source of foreign students and our second-largest source of tourists, only eclipsed by Australia. So China is critically important to New Zealand's success, and I'd like to think, from a Chinese point of view, obviously we're a tiny little country and the bottom of the world, but we are an important supplier for things that the Chinese consumers really value, like high-quality food and very safe food."

Now that China is slowly opening up after three years battling COVID, Key is looking forward to people-to-people exchanges between New Zealand and China – which he says are "absolutely critical" – getting back on track.

Key said face-to-face meetings are important, especially owing to language difficulties and other cultural barriers: "It's difficult when you don't have that opportunity to sit down with one another ... as soon as I can get back (to China) I will."

A lot of efforts are needed to bring the New Zealand-China relationship to the next level, Key said, and there will need to be "a bit of give and take."

"I think there's nothing wrong with us saying: 'Hey, you know, we think this would be an area where we could work more constructively together or this is an outcome we'd like to see,' just like the Chinese will have their own shopping lists of things for the world. It's not a one-way traffic here," he said.

"If we do work really hard, then we could have a magnificent relationship and China could be a really important counterpart and New Zealand could be seen as a really important go-between and voice, actually, for other countries into China."

Despite the state of international relations today, Key is confident and optimistic about China's role.

"Mark my words, mainstream thinking will come back to wanting to embrace China again," he said. "It will, because the economic opportunities are vast ... China will be a superpower, and superpowers have a special role to play."

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