China’s choice of ambassador to New Zealand indicates focus on deepening economic ties

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, who replaced former ambassador Wu Xi, previously served as director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s 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 President Xi Jinping.

The initiative has prompted some scepticism from world governments, particularly those in the west, about Beijing’s motives, with claims the BRI is largely an influence operation. In December the EU announced Global Gateway, a €300bn infrastructure spending project aimed at countering the BRI.

Wang appears to be more of a peace-maker 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 recognise 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, according to Dr Jason Young, director of the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, who noted that the economic relationship between the two had “held up really well compared to some other countries”.

There was some New Zealand interest in the BRI under former prime minister John Key’s centre-right National 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 sceptical 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 criticise China more vocally than previously. It has occasionally signed on to criticisms of China issued by more hawkish Anglosphere countries Australia, the United States, Canada and the UK.

The government has expressed concern this could lead to trade repercussions. In an interview with the Guardian in 2021, foreign minister 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 New Zealand’s 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, said Young. “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”.

Across the Tasman, government actions around Chinese political and economic interference sparked diplomatic conflict between the two countries, with China placing significant tariffs on some Australian exports. Recent Australian polling indicates 60% of Australians view China as a security threat.

China’s embassy in New Zealand has been approached for comment.

Additional reporting by Helen Davidson