An international relations expert says it is best New Zealand stays out of China’s domestic politics.
The BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University, Professor Siah Hwee Ang, says Finance Minister Bill English made the right call not to meet with Hong Kong officials advocating for democracy in the former British colony.
Yet Ang believes it wasn’t a good look for English to cancel the meeting the night before it was meant to take place on Tuesday.
English had arranged to meet Anson Chan, who was head of the Hong Kong Civil Service during the island’s transition from British to Chinese control, and political activist Martin Lee.
Yet he explains in a statement: “My office was contacted by the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressing concern the meeting could be diplomatically sensitive.
“It is not uncommon for the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ office to provide advice on meetings with foreign visitors.”
Anson and Lee have recently met with Australian and US officials, and talked to the Labour Party’s David Shearer and the Green Party’s Kennedy Graham.
Speaking in a Double Shot Interview Ang says English could have made it clear he was simply meeting to listen and wasn’t necessarily supporting their cause.
“If you agreed, you should have just met them and listened… A listening ear doesn’t hurt.”
Yet ultimately he says the advice English received from the Minister of Foreign Affairs was correct.
“If we formally recognise Hong Kong as part of China, we have to be careful here because we are talking about domestic affairs in China.”
Ang says China is very sensitive to such matters, particularly as there are a number of regions within China that want to be distanced from the “core” part of the country.
“There is a lot of work in the Chinese government space to try to hold the country together.”
He says New Zealand is implicated by China’s soft power as much as other parts of the world.
“China is going to have a lot more influence in the world’s economic growth, and we have to recognise that… They have a lot more power and say and implicit influence. It may not be explicit. It won’t be like a phone call to MFAT to say, ‘You better tell your finance minister not to talk to them’.”
‘Look, we are ready to burn the bridges’
On the subject of China relations, Ang says the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to formally announce the country’s change in allegiance from the US to China, shows he’s pulling out all the stops to get on side with China - quickly.
“He’s actually pushing very hard to try to gain the trust in a very sort of dramatic, very quick way, without actually spending the time to gain the trust,” Ang says.
Duterte at the end of the week announced his "separation" from the US and realignment with China, saying the two countries will resolve their dispute in the South China Sea through talks.
His call comes further to China causing outrage around the world, by saying it would ignore a ruling made in the Hague supporting the Philippines, which found Beijing doesn’t have historic rights to the sought after trade route.
The Philippines’ new relationship with China has been sealed with $13.5 billion in trade deals.
Duterte says: "I've realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way."
Ang says Duterte has been clear about the fact the Philippines needs China for economic reasons from the time he took up his position.
He believes Duterte has been so publicly bold and polarising in his comments to show China that the Philippines is well and truly ready to distance itself from its main trading partner - the US.
Ang says Duterte is basically saying to China, ‘Look, we are ready to burn the bridges’.
He doubts other Asian countries will take the same approach, saying they’re likely to be more cautious.
As for the South China Sea dispute, Ang says China isn’t really concerned who owns the area. Rather it wants to ensure the trade route is safe and ready for trade to pass through it in accordance with its One Belt, One Road policy.
“If the Philippines is up for it, that’s the ideal state.”
One Belt, One Road is centre stage in Asia, with free trade agreements losing their prominence.