Defence Force chief Kevin Short has offered some insight into the Government’s harder line on China, confirming a ‘dialogue’ took place about the strength of statements in a new defence policy document.
National claims the comments, along with a lack of movement on a free trade upgrade, show uncertainty about the Government’s position on China is starting to bite.
The Strategic Defence Policy Statement, released in July, attracted some attention for its references to an “increasingly confident” China and its military expansion in the South China Sea’s disputed territories.
Strength of Statements
Speaking to media after an appearance at Parliament’s Foreign affairs, Defence and Trade select committee, Short said there had been some discussions between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and the Ministry of Defence around “the strength of statements” in the document.
“When you consider that we are putting out a policy statement, it does always have to fit with our foreign policy side of things, so it is really just a dialogue between both to make sure there was comfort about what the ministry was putting out, what Defence was saying, and Foreign Affairs. Foreign affairs were just looking at what might be interpreted, so I’m very comfortable that we had an agreement on the wording as it transpires, and it’s a very good document for us to work with.”
He downplayed suggestions that Defence officials had wanted to take a harder line on China, saying: “It’s the wording that the people in uniform and within the (Ministry of Defence) use, quite direct, and the way we are, and the way we put things. Foreign affairs were just looking at what might be interpreted, so I’m very comfortable that we had an agreement on the wording as it transpires, and it’s a very good document for us to work with.”
There had been “complete agreement” between MFAT and Defence officials on the final content of the document, Short said.
A delay of weeks in the planned release of the statement was simply an issue of timing and bringing together the relevant officials, he said.
Defence Minister Ron Mark said he was “completely comfortable with the final document that was released”, which had been approved by Cabinet and consulted across the Government without disagreement on its content.
Cross-agency work on the preparation of the document for release was “standard process for any government policy document”, Mark said.
China uncertainty taking hold – National
The final version of the defence policy statement, even if watered down, still struck a nerve with Beijing: a week after its release, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the country had “lodged stern representations with New Zealand on the wrong remarks it has made on China”.
“We urge New Zealand to view the relevant issue in an objective way, correct its wrong words and deeds and contribute more to the mutual trust and cooperation between our two countries.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters told Newsroom at the time the Government would not resile from its views, with comments on the South China Sea “just making an observation that everyone’s making.”
National foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay said it would be “extremely concerning” if it had taken weeks for the agencies’ officials to reach agreement on the language in the policy statement.
McClay said the Government was sending mixed messages about the relationship with China, with Peters taking a stronger line while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was “reading more from an MFAT script.”
“It is that confusion or uncertainty that creates worry, both in as far as the relationships are concerned but also for New Zealanders who believe the trade agreements we have are important for them.”
Lack of progress
McClay said the apparent lack of progress on an FTA upgrade with China was cause for concern, while it was “diabolical” that Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker had been unable to secure a meeting with his Chinese counterpart during a visit to Shanghai this week.
A spokesman for Parker said while Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan had been unable to meet him, he had had a “long and good meeting – more than an hour” with Vice Minister Wang Shouwen, who was responsible for the bilateral trade relationship.
Six Government ministers had already visited China this year, compared to two National ministers in 2017, the spokesman said.
Ardern has also previously indicated she would visit the country before the end of 2018, although a trip has not been formally confirmed with less than two months of the year remaining.
A hitch in Belt and Road?
One bilateral agreement which has stalled is a memorandum of arrangement on the Belt and Road Initiative, signed under the last government when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited New Zealand.
The document called for a “more detailed work plan” to be finalised by September this year. However, Peters has been critical of the last government for signing up without a full understanding of the deal, suggesting at points the current administration would not be bound by its commitments.
Speaking to media this week, Peters said he was still awaiting further information from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on “what it [Belt and Road] specifically means.”
McClay said that the Government needed to show more urgency in pressing ahead with the agreement, while it was up for New Zealand to define what Belt and Road could mean for the country.
“It’s probably not good enough that they say they don’t care about missing deadlines because when a Minister says that, it sends another signal to China about their view of the relationship.”
It appears MFAT officials have been pressing ahead with talks on the scope and scale of any Belt and Road projects, with a spokeswoman confirming to Newsroom there had been travel “in both directions” to discuss the work plan.
A recently updated section of the Ministry website says discussions have included “developing a work plan based on information sharing, which targets specific issues, and focuses on areas clearly in New Zealand’s national interest”.
Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor of Newsroom covering Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security Issues based in Wellington. The above article and picture which appeared in the Web Edition of Newsroom today (November 9, 2018) have been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement.