Derek Cheng: Scott Morrison gives Jacinda Ardern a free pass on China


They stood side by side as the best of mates, a stark contrast to the last time Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern gave a press conference after formal talks.

That was in Sydney in February last year, when Ardern ripped into Morrison over Australia’s 501 deportations: “Do not deport your people and your problems.”

Those tuning in to today’s press conference between Ardern and Morrison may have anticipated similar fireworks.

The narrative that had been running for months – driven by Australian media in particular – was that New Zealand had ditched its principles and turned its back on its best mates in order to keep the doors open to China’s mega trade bucks.

Morrison had plenty of chances today to accuse New Zealand of failing to call out China strongly enough.

He was asked leading questions about China’s descriptions of New Zealand having “more sober and wise” diplomacy skills than Australia.

He was asked whether he thought New Zealand was pulling its weight, not only in terms of Five Eyes, but also whether New Zealand was over-reliant on Australia for checking Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

He didn’t take the bait. New Zealand did its fair share in the region, he said, and there was no material difference in each country’s respective position on China.

He even said countries from afar would seek to drive a wedge between the great family that is Australia and New Zealand, implying – but not saying explicitly – that this was China’s aim.

The extension of this line of thinking is that China, if it were being fair, should be treating New Zealand and Australia similarly.

Instead, China’s trade restrictions on Australia have cost at least $49 billion so far, while a seafood export ban by China has only affected two New Zealand facilities.

Ardern would have had no issue with Morrison’s play today. Whenever anyone accuses New Zealand of abandoning Australia in its efforts to call out China, Ardern can now recall Morrison’s A+ grade.

It also plays well into the narrative that New Zealand, so far, continues to walk the diplomatic tightrope perfectly, criticising China sufficiently to keep traditional allies and transtasman best mates onside, but not so much as to jeopardise $20b in annual exports to China.

New Zealand hasn’t always been in step with Australia, including when Australia called for a global inquiry into the origins and early handling of Covid-19 in April last year – which saw a furious response from Beijing.

But New Zealand has released several statements critical of China’s treatment of Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims, including two joint statements with Australia when both countries decided not to sing along with the Five Eyes chorus.

And, in a move unlikely to be seen favourably by China, New Zealand will also be a third party to Australia’s trade dispute with China over barley.

Ardern, too, was offered a chance today to have a go at Morrison over 501 deportees and alleged Islamic State terrorist Suhayra Aden, who was a dual citizen before her Australian citizenship was revoked by Morrison.

Ardern has fumed about both issues in the past, but today her response was tame.

“We, of course reiterate our ongoing view on the issue of the cancellation of citizenship, on issues of deportation. Prime Minister Morrison and I have had these exchanges before. He’s very clear on New Zealand’s view.”

Morrison repeated his line that the law is the law and it doesn’t just apply to New Zealand.

The only time during the press conference that any visible frustration crept in was at the end, when Ardern said the 501 policy amounted to Australia deporting people who were effectively Australian criminals to New Zealand.

“Prime Minister Morrison is in no doubt on my views on these matters,” Ardern said.

Morrison wasn’t about to let her have the last word, chiming in with: “Likewise.”

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