New Zealand isn’t going to accept a “master-servant relationship” with China just to derive economic benefits, an international relations expert says.

It comes amid a 60 Minutes Australia commercial questioning whether New Zealand is betraying our trans-Tasman partner for a “fast Chinese buck”.

The promotional video advertises an upcoming episode looking into New Zealand’s relationship with China. Including a deep voiceover, melodramatic background music, and interviews with the likes of Mike Hosking, the advertisement suggests New Zealand is turning into “New Xi-land” and ditching Australia “for a fast Chinese buck”.

Robert Patman, a politics and international relations professor at the University of Otago, says while he believes Australia would like New Zealand to speak out publicly and in unison with Five Eyes against human rights breaches in China, we do have an independent foreign policy.

“Having an independent foreign policy is part and parcel of not putting New Zealand’s eggs all in one basket, and I think that’s sensible,” he tells The Project.

“We’re not prepared to accept a master-servant relationship with China for economic reasons. That will not go down well in this country.”

The 60 Minutes episode – due to air on Sunday while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in New Zealand – follows an intense debate over recent months about whether Aotearoa is doing enough to raise concerns about human rights breaches in China or if it is keeping quiet to protect its $33 billion two-way trade partnership.

Australia has been hit hard by trade tariffs imposed by Beijing in retaliation for speaking up about abuses in China and for calling for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

Despite New Zealand not wanting to join forces with other Five Eyes partners to protest against China, Patman says we do in fact have a similar view with our trans-Tasman partner.

“While I think we actually share the concerns Australia has, we often like to deliver the message in a more nuanced way,” he says.

But he doesn’t think Australia is a poor friend for New Zealand to have – instead, they may see us as a subordinate.

“I think they want us to be a good junior partner, and I’m not sure we’re prepared to play that role.”

Robert Patman.
Robert Patman. Photo credit: The Project

Patman believes some Australian television networks have a “slightly cartoonish” view of New Zealand, and because we don’t often appear on their radar, we look like “tree-huggers who are out of touch with reality” or “bludgers”.

“I think they’re wrong on both counts, and let’s be quite clear, I think that also some networks and some political circles in Australia are slightly irritated by the fact that Jacinda Ardern has actually been quite candid in some of the frustrations that New Zealand has had with Australia,” he says.

“We’ve been particularly concerned about Australia’s human rights record and the way they treat refugees, putting them into detention camps. We’ve offered to resettle some of the people that have been put into detention camps in the Pacific but they haven’t accepted our offer.”

Ultimately, Patman says China appears to be in the process of losing allies in its region during a time where “it needs friends”, which “doesn’t make a lot of economic sense”.

“If you want to become a superpower, the last thing you want to do is lose your region. So at the moment, I’m puzzled by China’s behaviour at times, because it seems to be counter-productive to their international reputation.”