Australia, New Zealand Get Closer on China

Australian PM in New Zealand . . . 

Earlier this week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met for two days in the tourist city of Queenstown, New Zealand, for their annual meeting. High on the two leaders’ list of priorities was the economic impact of COVID-19, the collapse of tourism in their countries and Pacific Island countries, and China’s growing political and economic influence across the Pacific region. The meeting provided an opportunity for these two neighbours to address their differing public statements on China and concerns that New Zealand has in recent months moved to favour Beijing while not joining traditional allies – including Australia, the U.S., UK, and Canada – in criticizing China.

United front or papering over cracks?

Before the meeting, New Zealand’s Trade Minister announced the country would be joining, as a third party, the dispute Australia brought to the World Trade Organization concerning Chinese tariffs on Australian barley. At the meeting, the two leaders emphasized their shared opposition to human rights abuses in China, concerns about the South China Sea and Hong Kong, and Beijing’s economic coercion, especially in the Pacific region. China respondedby describing their comments as “irresponsible” and accusing the South Pacific neighbours of “gross interference” in China’s affairs.

Influence in the Pacific . . .

Australia and New Zealand have voiced concern about China’s steadily-growing influence in small Pacific Island countries, influencing how Pacific nations vote at the UN. Beijing has financed loans for large infrastructure projects, such as ports, which Pacific countries struggle to pay back, leaving them open to China taking control of such assets, potentially with a dual economic-military capability. New Zealand and Australia, both with significant Pacific diaspora populations, have long-standing diplomatic, aid, and economic ties with Pacific countries and recognize their contributions to the region’s economic health through travel and tourism, which the pandemic has cratered. Accordingly, Pacific Island countries are likely to be the next in line to join the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble when COVID-19 conditions allow for its expansion in the coming months.