A Strengthening China-New Zealand Link: John Key Reflects on the 40 Years of Diplomatic Relations between China and New Zealand and Considers Possibilities for the Future

By Key, John | New Zealand International Review, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview

A Strengthening China-New Zealand Link: John Key Reflects on the 40 Years of Diplomatic Relations between China and New Zealand and Considers Possibilities for the Future


Key, John, New Zealand International Review


The New Zealand-China relationship has come a long way since it was inaugurated in 1972, and is now so warm that Vice Premier Li has described it as 'at its best ever'. New Zealand and China have developed broad and substantial ties that are among New Zealand's most important. Our trade relationship, in particular, has been a huge success, and momentum has grown very quickly in recent years. People-to-people links between New Zealand and China are also strong. New Zealand has also, from time to time, hosted Chinese naval vessels, and works with China in various regional organisations. Looking forward, it is safe to assume that current trends will continue.

Relations between New Zealand and China are very good. We have extremely good trade links, which each year go from strength to strength. Our people are regular visitors to each other's countries. New Zealand is home to many people who have come here from China. In recent years, New Zealand has had three Chinese members of Parliament--two of them from my own party, the National Party. And our governments meet often and work together effectively.

In 2012, Vice Premier Li described the relationship between our two governments as 'at its best ever'. It has certainly come a very long way since 1949. That was in the early throes of the Cold War. And New Zealand and China soon found themselves on opposite sides in the conflict in Korea. But in 1972, Richard Nixon made his ground-breaking visit to China. That, on top of the outstanding diplomacy conducted by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, provided the opportunity for 28 countries, including New Zealand and Australia, to officially recognise the Beijing government.

New Zealand recognised China in December 1972, establishing the basis for New Zealand's enduring 'one China' policy. Yet even during those early years, from 1949 to 1972, when the country was largely closed to foreigners, a handful of New Zealanders left their mark on China. The most famous was, of course, Rewi Alley. Alley was a Cantabrian who went to China in 1927 and spent the rest of his life there--a total of 60 years. While working in Shanghai factories and travelling into the interior of the country, he became aware of the plight of ordinary Chinese peasants and workers. During the war against Japan, he helped establish thousands of small co-operative factories. He founded schools. And he was a prolific author and international publicist for the communist government, while continuing to hold a New Zealand passport.

The photographer Brian Brake "also visited China, in the late 1950s. His photographs, taken during the period of the Great Leap Forward, form a unique record of a turbulent period. The New Zealand government is supporting Te Papa to tour a collection of Brake photographs from this era, in partnership with the National Museum of China. They will be on display in Beijing at the time of the 40th anniversary.

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Relaxed bans

This level of personal engagement by New Zealanders in China was possible in part because the New Zealand government relaxed travel bans against China before many other Western countries. It also relaxed trade bans. In 1956, New Zealand lifted trade embargos imposed on China during the Korean War. Wool, tallow, hides and skins were New Zealand's main exports in those days, but trade flows remained relatively small. Exporters found it difficult linking buyers and sellers across very different economic systems, and connections were limited. In 1972, bilateral trade between New Zealand and China totalled only $1.7 million, and there were no air links between our two countries.

To a New Zealander in 1972, China would have seemed an unknown, mysterious country of close to a billion people. And it is hard to believe New Zealand figured highly in the minds of most Chinese. So much has changed, then, in 40 years. …

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