A new Chinese ambassador who previously worked on the country’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has arrived in New Zealand, giving rise to speculation. Beijing plans to focus on deepening economic ties with New Zealand as the two countries face growing diplomatic challenges.
Wang Xiaolong, who replaced former ambassador Wu Xi, previously served as director general of the international economic affairs department of China’s foreign ministry. In that role, Wang helped oversee the BRI, which strengthens economic ties between China and other countries and is a major focus of President Xi Jinping.
The initiative has sparked some skepticism from world governments, especially those in the west, about Beijing’s motives, with claims that the BRI is largely an influence operation. In December the EU has announced Global Gateway, a 300 billion euro investment project to combat the BRI.
Wang seems to be more of a peacemaker than the crop of “wolf warrior” diplomats in other foreign posts. In October he said that some disconnection between the US and China was inevitable, especially about technology. He called on China to recognize not only the US challenge but 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’s involvement in the BRI could grow, said Dr Jason Young, director of the Contemporary China Research Center at Victoria University, who noted that the economic relationship between the two “held up very well.” compared to some other countries”.
There was some New Zealand interest in the BRI under the centre-right national government of former Prime Minister John Key. In 2017, China and New Zealand signed a “memorandum of understanding” to develop a New Zealand engagement plan.
However, that involvement stalled after the election of a Labor-New Zealand First coalition in 2017, which took a more skeptical view of the BRI amid reports that it was “to”debt trap diplomacy”, with some poorer countries unable to repay Chinese loans for BRI projects.
Last year, Wellington indicated its willingness to partner with China on “mutually beneficial” BRI projects with an emphasis on the environment. What that means is not yet clear.
Young said New Zealand-China relations have also come under strain as a result of China’s “much more illiberal” tendencies in recent years, including Australia’s economic coercion and repressive policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
These challenges prompted New Zealand to criticize China louder than before. It has occasionally joined criticism of China from the more aggressive Anglosphere nations of Australia, the United States, Canada and the UK.
The government has expressed concern that this could lead to trade repercussions. In an interview with The Guardian in 2021, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta . said warned exporters to prepare for a possible “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 from the New Zealand Ministry of Defense warned that the country is facing “a considerably more challenging environment”, in part due to China’s “increasingly stronger 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 such a deterioration [which] we saw in Australia”.
On the other side of Tasman, government action over Chinese political and economic interference sparked diplomatic conflict between the two countries, with China imposing significant tariffs on some Australian exports. recent Australian poll indicates: 60% of Australians view China as a security risk.
The Chinese embassy in New Zealand has been contacted for comment.
Additional reporting by Helen Davidson