In early May, New Zealand joined the United States, Australia, and other democratic countries in expressing support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA) on May 18-19. New Zealand’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said on May 7 that his country backs Taiwan’s readmission as an observer to the World Health Organization (WHO) as it was in 2016. Peters, who clashed with the Chinese Embassy in Wellington, called Taiwan’s public health management of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a “standout world success story.” His personal view is that Taiwan should be able to rejoin the WHO. “Personally, you’ve got to have every population in the world in the WHO if it’s to have any meaning,” he argued. Wellington has insisted that its position on Taiwan’s participation in the WHO is not based on political or geostrategic considerations, but rather it is rooted in Taipei’s successful response to the global health crisis. Despite China’s growing influence in New Zealand, Taipei and Wellington have found avenues for cooperation on public health, trade and economic integration, and indigenous affairs in the South Pacific region.
COVID-19 as a Unifying Factor
For both Taiwan and New Zealand, two small Pacific powers, the coronavirus has accentuated the risks of being too deeply tied to the Chinese economy and has exposed the geopolitical implications of the global pandemic. Scholar Anne-Marie Brady wrote in April that Chinese COVID-19 assistance to New Zealand will come at a high political cost. Brady argued that Beijing withheld deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) to New Zealand in response to Wellington’s exclusion of Chinese technology giant Huawei from its 5G telecommunications network. Beijing’s selective rendering of coronavirus aid also comes amid reports of covert Chinese influence operations that utilize ethnic Chinese groups in New Zealand to infiltrate domestic politics to promote pro-China policies.
New Zealand, which has already been closely following the Taiwan model for battling the virus, should work with Taiwan and gain practical assistance on COVID-19, according to Brady. In mid-March, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called Taiwan’s model in fighting the coronavirus “quite successful” and lauded the island’s effective management of mass gatherings. New Zealand and Taiwan have now emerged as two success stories in the global fight against the pandemic. Taiwan has gone more than six weeks without new cases of local transmission, while New Zealand has been experiencing mostly zero new infection cases since mid-May. On a related note, New Zealand and Australia have been in talks about creating a trans-Tasman “travel bubble”—potentially including other low-risk Asian countries such as Taiwan—to enable their citizens to travel freely between countries. Opportunities also exist for both sides to provide coronavirus assistance to vulnerable regional countries, in particular the tiny Pacific island-nations where China has stepped up aid and which constitute a strategic area for regional and major power competition.
New Zealand’s Position in Regional Geopolitics
As a small Western country in the South Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is closely aligned with Australia and the United States on foreign policy and regional security issues. The three Western countries view China as challenging Washington, Canberra, and Wellington’s historical influence and leadership in the South Pacific. China has recently poured money and infrastructure projects into small Pacific island democracies to boost its profile in the region and poach Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Beijing also has sought to weaken New Zealand and Australia’s influence in regional institutions, such as by supporting Fiji’s creation of the Pacific Islands Development Forum—of which Canberra and Wellington are not members—to rival the Pacific Islands Forum (formerly the South Pacific Forum), founded by New Zealand in 1971. By nature of its smaller size, New Zealand has traditionally learned to balance against and between rival powers, including the United States and China, and has tried to avoid excessive reliance on either major power in order to maintain its independence and security. As a result, while Australia is much more aligned with the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, New Zealand has taken a less confrontational approach towards China.
In fact, New Zealand currently has a firm foundation of friendly relations with China. In April 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) told visiting Prime Minister Ardern in Beijing that the relationship between China and New Zealand has “become one of the closest between China and Western developed countries.” China has been New Zealand’s largest trade partner since 2017, and is also the South Pacific country’s second-largest source of imports. Bilateral trade reached a total of USD $20.9 billion last year. Moreover, Wellington was a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015 and signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen cooperation on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly “One Belt, One Road”) in 2017. This stands in contrast to Canberra’s more cautious attitude towards China’s global economic strategy. At bottom, New Zealand has exercised flexibility and pragmatism in its foreign policy, seeking to materially benefit from Chinese economic initiatives while also challenging Beijing’s actions that are detrimental to New Zealand’s national interests, such as its policies during the COVID-19 crisis.
Taiwan-New Zealand Economic and Trade Ties
Taiwan and New Zealand have close economic and trade ties, primarily in the agricultural sector. Taiwan is New Zealand’s seventh-largest export market. New Zealand, a major supplier of dairy, constituted Taiwan’s fourth-largest provider of agricultural goods in 2019. Taiwan imported a total of USD $839 million from New Zealand and exported USD $479 million to the South Pacific country last year. In a step towards enhancing trade on organic agricultural products, Taiwan and New Zealand signed an agreement on mutual recognition of regulatory systems governing organic products in February 2020. The agreement took effect in May, with New Zealand becoming the third country to sign such an agreement with Taiwan. Given New Zealand’s smaller economy, Taiwan has much higher levels of trade with its neighbor Australia. By comparison, Taiwan imported USD $10 billion from Australia and exported USD $3 billion to the Oceania country last year.
In the mid-1990s, New Zealand prioritized reaching free trade agreements (FTAs) with Asian economic partners, which could help to protect the trade-reliant country against disruptions and fluctuations in the international economy. New Zealand later pulled off the feat of being the first member state of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to sign an FTA with China in 2008 and Hong Kong in 2010. Wellington also became the first developed country and non-ally to sign an FTA with Taiwan in 2013.
During Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, Taiwan also signed a handful of economic cooperation and free trade agreements with trade partners. Three years after Taiwan signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 兩岸經濟合作架構協議) with China in June 2010, Taiwan and New Zealand reached a milestone economic cooperation agreement, formally known as the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC, 紐西蘭與臺澎金馬個別關稅領域經濟合作協定). Observers have argued that the signing of ECFA reduced Beijing’s resistance against other economic and trade arrangements between Taipei and non-allied countries such as New Zealand. Also, the conclusion of the China-New Zealand FTA was an important prerequisite before any similar agreement could be reached between Taipei and Wellington.
Although New Zealand ranked as Taiwan’s 40th largest trade partner at the time of ANZTEC’s signing, Taipei sought to gain additional economic and political benefits from the bilateral economic cooperation agreement. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said that ANZTEC will be of particular significance for future negotiations with other trading partners to sign similar agreements. Indeed, Taiwan subsequently signed an FTA with Singapore, a more important trade partner, in November 2013. According to MOFA, the conclusion of ANZTEC also marked a significant step forward in Taiwan’s strategy for greater regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region. Since New Zealand is a founding member of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Taiwanese government believed that ANZTEC would bolster Taipei’s bid to join both organizations.
Coming Home to Taiwan
For New Zealand’s Austronesian-speaking aboriginal Māori group (毛利人), one of their ancestral homes is Taiwan. The Māori’s ancestors were indigenous peoples from the Eurasian continental rimland who migrated to Taiwan, and then left the island about 5,000 years ago in a rapid migration to other Pacific islands. Māori ancestors are believed to have moved to New Zealand between 700 and 1,000 years ago. According to genetic sequencing research, the Māori are closely related to Taiwan’s Amis people (阿美族) living in the East Rift Valley (花東縱谷), nestled between Hualien (花蓮) and Taitung (台東) in eastern Taiwan. Both groups speak Austronesian languages, share cultural traditions, and face common challenges in preserving their indigenous identity.
Taiwan has been expanding cultural links with New Zealand, with a focus on enhancing cooperation between their indigenous populations. In 2004, New Zealand and Taiwan signed an agreement to enhance cultural exchanges on indigenous issues. The 2013 Taiwan-New Zealand economic cooperation agreement also stipulated that both sides would work to strengthen exchanges and cooperation in indigenous affairs. New Zealand’s Māori youth have also visited Taiwan to trace their ancestral roots on the island. Presidential Office Spokesperson Kolas Yotaka (谷辣斯·尤達卡), who is of Amis descent, said Taiwan’s government strives to protect ethnic and cultural diversity on the island.
Taipei has also undertaken initiatives to promote cultural protection and engage with regional countries on other indigenous issues. In October 2019, Taipei helped revive the Austronesian Forum (南島民族論壇), headquartered in Palau, which is aimed at preserving Austronesian languages and identity and fostering cooperation among more than 10 nations with Austronesian populations, including New Zealand. As a main historical pathway in the spread of Austronesian languages to the Pacific islands, Taiwan has to shoulder responsibility for regional developments regarding Austronesian peoples, said Icyang Parod (夷將·拔路兒), Minister of Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous People (CIP, 原住民族委員會), at last year’s Austronesian Forum.
As two small Pacific powers, Taiwan and New Zealand have common strategic interests in maintaining a stable environment in the South Pacific Ocean that does not fall under Beijing’s predominant influence. Taipei has been an active player in providing development aid and medical assistance to the South Pacific. Both Taipei and Wellington could collaborate to mitigate the threat of Chinese influence over the tiny Pacific island-democracies, working alongside the United States, Australia, and other like-minded countries. Taiwan and New Zealand have become success stories in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic and thus have valuable experiences to share with regional partners, including the Pacific island-nations.
The main point: New Zealand has shown pragmatism and flexibility in its relations with China and Taiwan. Wellington and Taipei have bonded over Taiwan’s bid to rejoin the WHO as an observer and should seize opportunities to cooperate more broadly on South Pacific issues.