New Zealand’s opposition leader has hit out at the US and UK over China, saying their failure to adopt free trade agreements was “foolish” and increased Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
“If any criticism comes to New Zealand, as it often does about this close relationship with China and trade, my answer to everybody – whether they’re the US or UK – is: ‘So where’s our free trade agreement?’,” Judith Collins, leader of the centre-right National party, said in an interview with the Guardian on Friday.
Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017 and the US did not join its replacement, the CPTPP. New Zealand began talks with the UK last year on a post-Brexit free trade deal, but it has not yet been made.
Collins said the US had been “foolish” to walk away from those free trade agreements. In doing so, Collins said: “What they did is that they opened up the gates for China to be even more important in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific region. They opened that up, and they left the door open, and they were ultimately foolish to do so. And that has actually caused the issue.
“Stop judging New Zealand by the fact that we are a little country at the bottom of the world who has to trade. That’s how we do it. That’s how we pay for everything we need.”
China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner by a substantial margin and accounts for about a third of total exports. According to the NZ China Council, exports to China last year were $16.7bn, more than New Zealand’s trade with Australia, the US and Japan – its next three largest trade partners – combined. That has led to speculation New Zealand is unable to take tough stances on Beijing due to its trade dependency.
The Ardern government has been walking a difficult line on China issues – making case-by-case statements on human rights violations or encroachment in Hong Kong or the South China Sea but avoiding the more strongly stated, hawkish condemnations coming from the US or Australia. It has been watching the experience of its trans-Tasman neighbour closely: Australia has been hit by a hugely costly trade war with China, with enormous tariffs on most of its export commodities.
Prof David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University in Wellington, said trade was the missing link for US policy in the region.
“Over the past few months there’s been a lot of attention paid to the US’s security role in the Indo-Pacific – for example, the rapidly evolving quad and the new Aukus deal. But for many regional countries the missing part of US strategy is trade,” Capie said.
“If the US is concerned about China’s growing influence, what alternatives is it providing to the huge gravitational pull of the Chinese economy? Free trade has always been a fraught issue in American politics and it’s only got more challenging in the last few years. The result is that Washington really doesn’t have a trade strategy to back up its wider aims.
“Shared values are all well and good, but they don’t keep the lights on.”
‘We’re not stupid’
This year New Zealand, along with Australia, welcomed coordinated sanctions announced by the UK, US, the EU and Canada over Uyghur abuses, but did not institute sanctions of their own. In May, New Zealand shied away from using the word “genocide” in a motion on Xinjiang debated and unanimously adopted by parliament – opting instead to use more general, watered-down language of “human rights abuses”.
After statements from foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta that New Zealand was “uncomfortable with expanding the remit” of the Five Eyes alliance, a UK conservative MP accused Ardern of “sucking up to China”, and Australian media said the country had “sold its soul” to preserve trade agreements.
Collins said the opposition did not chime in with those criticisms. “We don’t attack them [the government] on it because we know their problem. Their problem is who’s going to pay the bills?”
Collins said there would be trade repercussions for New Zealand if it spoke out. “The problem is, [when] we go out there and we talk about the Uyghur people and what is clearly an appalling situation, what we know happens – and we’ve seen it before – is that suddenly there are trade issues.”
Collins cited the recent example of Zespri, New Zealand’s largest kiwifruit cooperative, having Covid-19 detected on its fruit in China – and strongly implied the case was political.
“We’re not stupid, we know what’s going on,” Collins said. Asked if the case was political retaliation, she said: “I don’t know. But I’ve been around long enough in politics, and long enough in senior roles, to know that these things do happen.”
Zespri’s chief executive, Dan Mathieson, told Stuff on Monday that exports had been continuing as normal after the initial detection, and all subsequent tests had been negative.
Australia, the US and UK last month announced the new Aukus security pact – one that New Zealand were notably absent from and that experts said was an illustration of the distance between the country and its traditional allies.
“Aukus doesn’t include us and it doesn’t include Canada, so we’ve both been ignored from it,” Collins said. “We’re being left out.”
She said she was a firm supporter of New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, which bans nuclear-powered vessels – including those constructed under Aukus – from New Zealand waters. However, she also said: “The information sharing, the artificial intelligence work, the technology-sharing agreement part of Aukus – that was important that we were left out of that. You’d have to wonder why Canada and New Zealand were excluded from that part of it.”
Collins is languishing in the polls, polling at just 5% as preferred prime minister, compared with Jacinda Ardern’s 44%. Across parties, Labour is at 43% and National at 26%.
The Guardian has approached the foreign minister’s office for comment.