A new Chinese ambassador who has previously worked on the country’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has arrived in New Zealand, prompting speculation Beijing is planning to focus on deepening economic ties with New Zealand as the two countries navigate growing diplomatic challenges.
Wang Xiaolong (王小龍) previously served as director-general of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of International Economic Affairs. In that role, Wang helped oversee the BRI — which seeks to deepen economic ties between China and other countries, and is a key focus of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
The initiative has prompted some skepticism from world governments, particularly those in the West, about Beijing’s motives, with claims the BRI is largely an influence operation. Last month, the EU announced Global Gateway, a 300 billion euros (US$343.8 billion euros) infrastructure spending project aimed at countering the BRI.
Wang appears to be more of a peacemaker figure than the crop of “wolf warrior” diplomats in other foreign postings. In October, he said that some decoupling between the US and China was inevitable, particularly over technology.
He called for China to recognize not just the challenge posed by the US, but also its own growing strength and “the rise of our influence and power to shape the global narrative.”
Given Wang’s background, discussions about New Zealand involvement in the BRI could grow, said Jason Young, director of the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, who said that the economic relationship between the two had “held up really well compared to some other countries.”
There was some interest in the BRI under former New Zealand prime minister John Key’s center-right government. In 2017, China and New Zealand signed a “memorandum of agreement” to develop a plan for New Zealand involvement.
However ,that engagement stalled following the 2017 election of a Labour-New Zealand First coalition, which took a more skeptical view of the BRI amid reports that it involved “debt-trap diplomacy,” with some poorer countries unable to repay Chinese loans for BRI projects.
Last year, Wellington indicated a willingness to work with China on “mutually beneficial” BRI projects with an environmental emphasis.
It remains unclear what that would involve.
Young said the New Zealand-China relationship has also come under pressure due to China’s “far more illiberal” tendencies in recent years, including economic coercion of Australia and repressive policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
These challenges prompted New Zealand to criticize China more vocally than previously. It has occasionally signed on to criticisms of China issued by more hawkish Anglosphere countries Australia, the US, Canada and the UK.
The government has expressed concern this could lead to trade repercussions. In an interview with the Guardian last year, New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta warned exporters to prepare for a potential “storm” of anger from China.
New Zealand officials have also become more cautious about the implications of growing Chinese aggression for the Indo-Pacific and New Zealand itself. A recent report by the New Zealand Ministry of Defence warned that the country faces “a substantially more challenging environment” due, in part, to China’s “increasingly strong nationalist narrative.”
Despite these challenges, New Zealand’s relationship with China remains relatively stable, Young said.
“If I were a guessing man, I would suggest [Wang’s] focus will be on maintaining the relationship, in the sense of not having a deterioration like that [which] we saw in Australia,” he said.
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