Will New Zealand's new prime minister affect Sino-NZ relations?

Andy Boreham
Both sides of New Zealand's political aisle have proven to be quite apt at balancing major powers and remaining neutral.
Andy Boreham

It's looking likely that Christopher Luxon, leader of the National Party, will be the next prime minister of New Zealand after Saturday's general election saw it blast the incumbent Labour Party out of the water.

But how will China-New Zealand relations fare after this weekend's election results?

New Zealand has long taken pride in its ability to balance its relationships with the rest of the world, and to hold fairly neutral ground.

New Zealand is close with China, with the former being the first-ever developed nation to enter a free trade agreement with Beijing. Formal relations between the two states began in 1972.

In 1997, New Zealand was the first Western nation to officially support China's joining of the World Trade Organization.

In 2004, New Zealand was the first country to recognize China as a market economy.

Balancing act

Despite being a firm ally of the USA, New Zealand imposed a strict nuclear free policy in 1984, which banned nuclear-powered vessels entering our waters, much to the chagrin of Washington DC.

Wellington has refused to budge, proudly holding its ground despite pressure to remove the ban, which has ended up a perfect excuse for not joining AUKUS.

New Zealand does NOT have a free trade agreement with the USA.

Will Sino-NZ relations improve?

The previous Labour-led government was fairly friendly with Beijing, except for then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern oftentimes falling back on US/Western imperialist arguments like that Beijing was not following the "international rules-based order" and so on.

Current Labour-leader Chris Hipkins, while PM, visited China a few months ago on a quick tour, together with some Kiwi business leaders, aimed at shoring up support from China and Chinese industries. Having said that, Labour has taken a fairly cautious approach to relations with China over the past few years.

Luxon, on the other hand, probably won't be so feeble, and is likely to dive head-first into strengthening and growing trade with China.

One sign was the fact that Luxon recently said he would "absolutely" use Chinese money to build infrastructure if the opportunity arose, a statement others in parliament steered clear of.

One reporter asked him if he would be worried about China's so-called, and already debunked, "debt trap diplomacy," and his response was promising: He called the suggestion "xenophobic" and "pretty simplistic."

The wild card

One factor that might play a role in whether or not the new government further embraces Sino-NZ relations is Winston Peters and the NZ First Party. Peters' party has currently won eight seats and an impressive 6.46 percent of the vote.

The issue? He has been known to be quite anti-China and anti-foreign in general, once joking that "two Wongs don't make a right."

He was lambasted for his take, quipping: "It's called humor. I know that in Beijing they think it's funny, and so do I."

Luxon and the National Party have extended an olive branch to Peters, offering the chance for discussions around joining the government. If he does, he could pour at least a little cold water on moves to grow ties with China.

Overall, I think National forming the next government has the potential to be a positive for Sino-NZ relations. But then again, both sides of New Zealand's political aisle have proven to be quite apt at balancing major powers and remaining neutral.

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