Air New Zealand Flight, China Relations Take a U-Turn

While Ottawa continues to struggle with the Huawei dilemma, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been beset with a similar set of challenges in her country’s plummeting relationship with Beijing. In particular, New Zealand has found itself in its current situation after toeing the line in Washington’s tech Cold War with China and banning Huawei’s 5G equipment in November 2018. This week, the Ardern administration was beleaguered with questions about the Air New Zealand flight that made a dramatic U-turn halfway to Shanghai, “administrative” delays in pre-planned bilateral events, and visa troubles for ministers, all making it clear that there is a major challenge in current China-New Zealand relations.

Air New Zealand’s NZ289, which left Auckland to Shanghai on Sunday, was forced to turn around four hours into its flight when it was informed that it did not have permission to land in Shanghai. While Air New Zealand has attributed this incident to an administrative error, the media has suggested that the motive was more political – in that Air New Zealand’s listing of Taipei as the capital of Taiwan, as opposed to a city in China, may have prompted this incident. Opposition leader Simon Bridges has linked the U-turn incident to the growing chasm between China and New Zealand, criticizing the government for compromising a key bilateral relationship.

Ever since New Zealand’s Government Communications Bureau turned down the proposal from Spark, a telecom company, to use Huawei’s equipment for the 5G network, there have been signs of a deteriorating relationship with Beijing. The launch of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism has been postponed due to a “change of schedule” on the Chinese side. The opposition has suggested that the government’s five ministers are awaiting permission from Beijing for their mission to China. Also, it has been reported that prime minister Ardern’s visit to China, which has been in plans since November 2017, is also in limbo.

The government has dismissed suggestions that the relationship between New Zealand and China is in peril, attributing these incidents to “administrative” or “scheduling” issues, and instead criticized the opposition for politicizing such an important diplomatic relationship. But even the prime minister admitted to “complexities” in China-New Zealand relations, which alludes to issues beyond the “administrative.”