The People's Liberation Army engages with New Zealand

On 21 January 2022, a report appeared on the website of the Chinese embassy in New Zealand noting that, on 19 January, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department under China’s Central Military Commission, had held talks via video link with Andrew Bridgman, New Zealand’s Secretary of Defence.

Li Zuocheng is an influential PLA officer and is the official to whom US General Milley spoke just before the 2020 US presidential election and, again, after the 6 January 2021 Capitol riot. Li was also a participant in the 2019 China-Japan talks to de-escalate the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute, and the officer with whom outgoing UK Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, held discussions in September 2021.

Members of the PLA walk past Tiananmen Gate

Source: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The talks were described as a ‘frank and in-depth exchange of views on regional security situation, bilateral state and military relations, as well as other issues of common concern’. The PRC embassy website report expanded:

General Li mentioned that Chinese President Xi Jinping and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a telephone communication last November, making a strategic planning for developing relations between the two countries. The China-New Zealand military exchanges have existing foundation, broad prospects and shared-goals, and in the future, the two militaries should maintain high-level communication, enhance strategic mutual-trust, explore new areas of cooperation, Li said.

Li hoped that the two militaries would, taking the 50th anniversary of the China-New Zealand diplomatic relations as a new starting point, push forward their ties, make contributions to protecting regional peace and prosperity and building the Asia-Pacific community with a shared future.

Mr Bridgman’s response was reported as:

New Zealand attaches importance to developing military ties with China and is willing to maintain dialogue and communication with the Chinese side, deepen strategic mutual trust, strengthen pragmatic cooperation and enhance communication and coordination in international and regional affairs.

At a 27 January press conference convened by China’s Ministry of Defence, the PLA spokesperson Wu Qian again stressed that ‘China is willing to maintain high-level communication with New Zealand and advance the development of military relations between the two countries’.

The meeting was also reported by the China News Service in Chinese and English, but the New Zealand Department of Defence and New Zealand media did not report this discussion at the time. It was only in April 2022 that a ‘heavily-redacted account of the meeting, obtained under the Official Information Act’ was reported in the New Zealand media. This provided a New Zealand account of the discussions.

Reportedly, Andrew Bridgman ‘spoke in detail’ on the Solomon Islands situation, highlighting ‘the important role that New Zealand, Australia and other Pacific Islands Forum nations have played in helping restore calm, and the long-standing approach of Pacific Islands Forum members in supporting each other’s security needs’. He is also reported to have stated that ‘… the US was one of New Zealand’s closest security partners, and Australia our only military ally’.

This appears to have been New Zealand’s most senior engagement with the PLA since 2019, when New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark travelled to Beijing to sign a defence cooperation agreement with General Xu Qiliang, a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The talks took place in a changing strategic environment. The discussion between the Chinese general and the New Zealand Defence Secretary occurred a week after the new PRC ambassador, Wang Xiaolong, arrived in New Zealand promising to promote the China-New Zealand Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (agreed during the Xi Jinping visit in 2014).

Further, the Bridgman-Li discussion closely followed the publication of New Zealand’s 2021 Defence Assessment, which noted that ‘an increasingly powerful China is more assertively pursuing its interests’ and that ‘China’s external objectives have expanded over time, as has the expression of China’s “core interests”’. The assessment also noted: ‘Internationally, Beijing has been improving its use of military capabilities and activities to support its broader national objectives, for example by growing its defence diplomacy to support China’s global influence’.

This New Zealand concern about China in the defence realm echoed earlier statements in the political sphere, with Prime Minister Ardern seeking to present a common stance on the PRC with Australia’s Prime Minister Morrison in May 2021. Foreign Minister Mahuta has also been openly critical of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Yet, in responding to these criticisms, the PLA may well have taken heart from the earlier statements on New Zealand-China relations by Foreign Minister Mahuta and the comments by New Zealand’s Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor, who suggested that the Australian Government should show China more ‘respect’ in order to avoid campaigns of economic punishment.

Further, the relative isolation—both geographic and strategic—of New Zealand has also presented opportunities for China. The originally tripartite ANZUS Treaty is now essentially a bilateral Australia-US alliance, and with New Zealand not included in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the new AUKUS Indo-Pacific arrangements, and questions being raised about the future of its involvement with the Five Eyes intelligence network, the opportunities for China to offer New Zealand an avenue to ‘deepen strategic mutual trust’ have increased.

China has stepped up its military and other cooperation efforts with Pacific Island countries, particularly since 2019—following Kiribati and Solomon Islands switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. This has occurred alongside China’s growing aspirations for a blue-water navy and the consequent need for ‘strategic pivot ports’ across the South Pacific. It is reported that PLA delegations visited the Pacific Islands 24 times between 2006 and 2019, more than 60% of which involved PLA naval ships. China has also provided military equipment, vehicles, and ships to military forces across the Pacific. These efforts have been stepped up since 2019, with suggestions that some Pacific Island states have been marked for Chinese dual-use ports.

The potential for future Chinese military facilities in the Pacific has been suggested for Vanuatu, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Samoa and French Polynesia. The growing reach of China’s military and its significance for Australia has also been widely examined. Within this overall discussion, the PLA’s increasing interest in New Zealand warrants increased observation.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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