WELLINGTON – Reflecting on her five years as New Zealand's leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said China has undoubtedly become more assertive in the region over that time, but cautioned that building relationships with small Pacific nations shouldn't become a game of one-upmanship.
In a joint interview Thursday with The Associated Press and the Australian Associated Press, Ardern said China has changed in recent years under President Xi Jinping.
“I think if I stand back and look at the region as a whole and some of the changes that we’ve seen within our region, you do see a more assertive China,” Ardern said.
“And look, there’ll be a whole host of reasons for that. Their integration into the regional economy, the growth of China, the growth of its middle class, a whole range of reasons,” she said. “But you have also seen a more assertive approach on a number of different issues and relationships. So that undoubtedly has changed over my time in office.”
China this year made some bold geopolitical moves in the Pacific, first by signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands and then attempting — without success — to get 10 Pacific nations to sign a sweeping agreement covering everything from security to fisheries.
Those moves have deeply worried some Pacific nations and Western democracies including the United States. But Ardern rejected criticism that New Zealand didn't make its presence felt enough this year as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toured Pacific nations courting influence.
“I think if you take a measure of a relationship as solely being: When was the last time you had a politician visit? That is not the measure of a relationship,” Ardern said. “Our relationships in the Pacific region are family relationships because we are family, we are of the Pacific.”
She said those relationships were built at a community level.
“So I think we have to be really cautious about treating our relationships as if it’s somehow one-upmanship,” Ardern said. “You've got to be consistent in your presence, and New Zealand has been.”
Asked if she was recommending that farmers and other exporters find markets outside of China, which buys more than one-quarter of New Zealand's exports, Ardern said it was a question of resilience.
“We’ve actually, from the moment we came into office, been focused on what has been previously characterized as diversification, but what I would say is resilience,” Ardern said.
“We saw through COVID that actually, regardless of the reason, if you see change in a marketplace where you’ve had a dominant market for any goods or services, that can be problematic,” she said. “If you have a supply chain issue, then it can cause a whole range of issues. So this, for us, is about resilience.”
New Zealand's Indigenous Māori continue to be disproportionately represented in negative statistics ranging from child poverty to incarceration rates. Asked about her record with Māori, Ardern said her government has been making progress.
“We've just come through, or are in the middle of, an enormous economic crisis, and yet we've got some of the lowest Māori unemployment that we've seen,” Ardern said.
She said Māori wanted good healthcare, decent educational opportunities and housing for their communities — all things that her government was working on providing.
But Ardern also acknowledged she has faced backlash on some contentious Indigenous issues. Those include everything from settlements negotiated under New Zealand's founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, to a push to teach more Māori history and language in schools.
“Change is always difficult,” Ardern said. “Change will always bring opposition. But actually, I’m proud of what we’ve done. It is always important to try and keep bringing people with you. And every time you do make those steps, there will be those who disagree with that."
Ardern faces a general election next year as she seeks a third term in office. She has gone from winning a landslide victory of historic proportions two years ago to now being behind her conservative rivals in the polls.
“Politics is all about fixing problems. We’ve had a few more problems than most that we’ve needed to fix,” Ardern said.
She said she expects the election race will be focused on the economy, as recessions hit nations around the world.
“Right now, people feel a sense of anxiety. They feel a sense of anxiety about the unknown of what's in front of us,” Ardern said. “I do think it’s important that we acknowledge: Yes, it has been challenging and it will be. But also, we know enough about what’s coming our way to know that we will get through.”