Apr 22, 2021 - World

Australia and New Zealand diverge over China

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with China's Xi Jinping in 2019. Photo: Kenzaburo Fukuhara - Pool via Getty

Australia’s federal government has ripped up two agreements the state of Victoria signed as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, citing the “national interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Why it matters: Australia is showing increased willingness to risk backlash from China — by far its largest trading partner. Beijing swiftly accused Canberra of showing a “Cold War mentality and ideological bias.”

The other side: Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta of New Zealand this week tried to draw a line between her country and its Five Eyes partners — Australia, Canada, the U.K., and U.S. — when it comes to China.

  • New Zealand is “uncomfortable with expanding the remit” of the intelligence partnership and seeks an “independent” foreign policy, she said.

What they're saying:

  • After those comments caused a stir, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated her commitment to Five Eyes while adding, "It's all about making sure we're partnering or speaking with the right cohort at the right time."
  • New Zealand has declined to join in multiple joint statements that criticized China, though the government has at times raised concerns about China’s human rights record.
  • Former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer noted that New Zealand had also strengthened its trade pact with China earlier this year while Australia was facing Chinese sanctions. "Used to be our best mates. Not now," he tweeted.

The big picture: The new factor here is not that New Zealand is moving closer to Beijing, it’s that countries like Australia are moving farther away, Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian notes.

  • Flashback: After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 last year, China struck back by hammering Australian exports of products like lobster and wine.

The bottom line: Well aware of its own economic reliance on China, New Zealand is treading much more carefully.

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