Until Jacinda Ardern visits China, questions about the relationship will only deepen

Te Papa is opening the landmark Terracotta Warriors: 
Guardians of Immortality exhibition, which was supposed to host the opening of a year of celebration of China-New Zealand tourism. However the late cancellation of the event is feared to be a sign that relations with China, New Zealand's largest trading partner, are deteriorating.
ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF
Te Papa is opening the landmark Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition, which was supposed to host the opening of a year of celebration of China-New Zealand tourism. However the late cancellation of the event is feared to be a sign that relations with China, New Zealand's largest trading partner, are deteriorating.

OPINION: Reaction to news that an Air New Zealand plane carrying 270 people was turned around part way to Shanghai reveals much about the current state of New Zealand-China relations.

There is no doubt that the relationship is in a difficult state, and many in media and foreign affairs circles are on the lookout for any sign that China is punishing New Zealand.

Full disclosure: I was asking questions of Air NZ on Sunday afternoon, suspecting it may be the start of a diplomatic incident.

In the decade after New Zealand signed a ground-breaking free trade agreement with China, the world's most populous nation rose to become our largest trading partner.

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But while former Prime Minister John Key made it virtually a policy to visit China annually, with ministerial visits averaging close to one a month, face-to-face contact with the current Government has become almost rare.

News that the Government's security bureau may block Chinese giant Huawei from participating in the next generation 5G telecommunications network, seemingly under pressure from our Five Eyes partners, has left the political class on edge.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, and Air New Zealand flight en route to Shanghai returned to Auckland, sparking speculation that an administrative issue may be a guise for a diplomatic incident.
SUPPLIED
In the early hours of Sunday morning, and Air New Zealand flight en route to Shanghai returned to Auckland, sparking speculation that an administrative issue may be a guise for a diplomatic incident.

Everyone expects some form of punishment from the world's largest command economy, creating a high risk of confirmation bias, where we interpret facts based on what we believe is coming.

Although Air NZ quickly acknowledged an unspecified "administrative issue", the highly unusual decision to return to Auckland when the plane was already well on the way meant questions were inevitably aimed at the Beehive.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was questioned repeatedly, forced to defend the state of relations with New Zealand's largest trading partner.

Now that we believe we know the real reason why flight NZ289 came back to Auckland - that the airline had not yet submitted paperwork which satisfied Beijing's officious approach to any suggestion that Taiwan might be independent - the episode seems more understandable.

China's approach to Taiwan is well known, as is its strict approach to paperwork.

This was a plane flying in the middle of the night, on a weekend, to a country which only a few years ago blocked all meat imports from New Zealand for more than a week because the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had been rebranded the Ministry for Primary Industries, meaning export paperwork changed slightly.

But even if the Air NZ flight is forgotten, the episode will be repeated.

Back in October, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis was so excited by the coming China-New Zealand year of tourism that he posted an official statement on the Beehive website.

An opening ceremony event was to be held at Te Papa on February 20, coinciding with the hosting of 2300-year-old Chinese artefacts, the Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality exhibition.

However, a fortnight ago, the Chinese (who were the hosts of the event) unexpectedly cancelled.

"Officials are working with the Chinese Embassy to get a new date confirmed for this event," a spokesman for Davis said.

Scheduling clashes happen - we all have to postpone sometimes. The problem for the Ardern Government is that the language is almost identical to a key question, which she cannot answer: when are you going to China?

Ardern is left trotting out the line that this is a scheduling issue, and the only thing keeping her from an official visit is scheduling clashes.

This has been the case for some time; journalists were asked to prepare for a trip in December, however this was abruptly cancelled.

The longer the situation goes on, the more it appears that the excuse that the problems are caused by scheduling issues are simply a subtle diplomatic slap.

For weeks there have been rumours that officials at the Chinese Embassy have warned the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that the trip is not happening until other issues are resolved, something Mfat denies.

Exactly how much the difficulties in the relationship with China can be blamed on the Government is hard to know.

National, which showed virtual fealty to Beijing during its nine years in power, would have us believe that things would be better if they were still in charge.

But the relationship with China and many of our close allies is also changing.

If National leader Simon Bridges really wants to convince us things would be different if he were Prime Minister, he should deliver a clear statement that he would support Huawei playing a major role in the 5G network, putting New Zealand at clear odds with the rest of the Five Eyes network.  

Whether the current low level tension escalates is impossible to know.

On the one hand, China faces bigger problems, in its ongoing trade war with the United States, meaning it cannot afford to get into unnecessary fights elsewhere.

On the other, if China wanted to demonstrate its power to cause considerable pain to a country resisting its expansion, while causing relatively little pain to its own economy, New Zealand could be an attractive target.

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