A decade later, it has taken New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern nearly 18 months in office to visit China.
As she prepares to finally touch down in Beijing on Sunday to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, relations between the two nations are looking far more complicated.
But Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center, said over the past few years more and more issues have come between the two countries.
“Some of those issues are due to how China itself has changed,” he said.
The China-New Zealand relationship is one that Ardern’s predecessors have taken care to foster.
However Wellington’s ties to Beijing have raised alarm bells with the United States, New Zealand’s longtime ally.
Along with Washington, New Zealand is a member of the exclusive intelligence sharing community known as “Five Eyes,” which also consists of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
“Australia and New Zealand both face substantial problems with interference by the Chinese Communist Party. In both cases, the CCP has gotten very close to or inside the political core, if you will, of both countries,” Mattis told the commission.
Juggling the relationship with the US and China has become increasingly difficult for New Zealand, with relations between the two giants souring amid US President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war.
Tensions with Beijing reached a new level in 2018 when New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau blocked Chinese technology company Huawei from providing 5G technology to one of the country’s major telecommunication companies, Spark.
The US has been putting pressure on its allies and diplomatic partners to ditch Huawei over security concerns, a move which has been regularly condemned by Beijing.
Speaking to CNN in February, Andrew Campbell, a spokesman for Ardern, said the relationship had suffered some “irritation … because of the GCSB’s decision regarding Huawei.”
Ardern on the back foot
In recent months, Ardern has found herself under greater pressure from opposition politicians and critics to defend the strength of New Zealand’s relationship with China.
At the time, Ardern denied it was a “relationship” issue with China, saying instead it was an administrative error.
Ardern’s trip also comes at a sensitive time for New Zealand, just two weeks after the terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch in which 50 people died. She even said she would be cutting her trip to China short, as it didn’t seem “appropriate” to be overseas at such a time.
“Given I’ve raised it before, that should give you an indication,” she said when asked by reporters this week.
Prior to her trip, a spokesman for the Prime Minister denied again that she was concerned about the relationship with China worsening under her leadership. “China is one of our most important and far-reaching relationships. Our relationship is mature and resilient,” the spokesman said.
China researcher Young agreed with the official line.
“I think if the relationship really was deteriorating in that way, then it would be far clearer. I think China would be a lot more blunt in the message if it was wanting to send a message,” he said.
Increasingly, the Pacific — a region where New Zealand has long been a significant player — is shaping up to be a new battleground for influence.
Despite the numerous points of friction, Stephen Jacobi, the executive director of the New Zealand China Council, isn’t panicking. Instead, Jacobi said, the biggest fear is that tiny New Zealand becomes irrelevant.
“The reality is we are a small country and the Chinese don’t get up every day thinking about how they can do nice things for New Zealand,” he said. “That means we need to be careful in the way we do things — but we are never going to agree on everything with China.”
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