Heather du Plessis-Allan: Damien O’Connor’s colossal China clanger

There’s no disputing that Trade Minister Damien O’Connor has dropped an absolute clanger in giving Australia a dose of his advice on China.

It’s not that he was factually wrong. In fact, he was completely correct in what he said. His error was in saying it out loud. Because, he just told anyone suspecting New Zealand of sucking up to China for economic reward that they’re bang on the mark.

Speaking to cable news channel CNBC mid-week, O’Connor advised Australia that “clearly if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they too, hopefully, could be in a similar situation” with China.

Senior Australian government officials are reportedly infuriated by O’Connor’s comments, which they see as a continuing pattern of New Zealand letting down its allies by going soft on China.

Essentially, O’Connor told Australia that if they just brown-nose China like we do, and go a bit softer on China’s anti-democratic crackdowns like we do, then they too could be signing their own upgraded free trade agreement with China, like we had just done a few hours before the interview.

Australia, by contrast, hasn’t had a meeting to progress their upgraded FTA since November 2017. That’s what comes from them taking a tough stance: repeatedly and publicly challenging China on the Hong Kong crackdown, calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid, criticising the treatment of Uighur muslims and objecting to China’s international bullying.

Instead of being handed an upgraded FTA as a reward, Australia has been slapped with tariffs on its barley, beef and wine, and faced bullying including China tweeting an offensive, faked photograph of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

This is not a criticism of our chosen diplomatic strategy with China. Given our size and dependence on China’s trade, we can’t afford the sanctions Australia is copping. The few times in recent years that we’ve challenged China, we’ve been slapped down fast. After Labour imposed the in-all-but-name ban on Huawei in New Zealand, we suddenly and no-so-coincidentally found a whole raft of problems including getting our salmon across the border and China cancelling a tourism event at Te Papa. After, inexperienced Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta unusually signed up to a Five Eyes statement criticising China over Hong Kong, a spokesperson threatened that “eyes will be plucked out”.

For some time now, successive New Zealand governments have done an outstanding job of sitting firmly on the China fence. They’ve kept us in the Five Eyes Alliance with the West, while also maintaining our massive trade with China. They’ve avoided choosing one side over the other.

But, it has riled our allies. Australia feels they’re doing the diplomatic heavy lifting over China. The US is constantly trying to get us to lean their way in going harder on China. It’s obvious we are relatively quiet on China’s human rights abuses and anti-democratic crackdowns, which is awkward when Ardern’s government is supposed to be the global poster child for kindness.

Critics of our silence will probably already have suspected that we’re putting money ahead of morals. Now, they don’t need to rely on suspicion any more. Damien O’Connor has told them it’s true.

He calls it “respect”, others will call it sycophancy.

• Heather du Plessis-Allan hostsDrive on Newstalk ZB, 4pm-7pm, weekdays

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