25 Mar 2019

Ardern to visit China amid reports of strained relations

8:24 pm on 25 March 2019

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will make a whirlwind visit to China on Monday, her first trip there since speculation started to mount about deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Jacinda Ardern at Post Cab.

Jacinda Ardern made the announcement at the post-Cabinet meeting today. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The visit will be cut to just one day due to the events in Christchurch, but Ms Ardern said it's important she goes to reinforce our good relationship.

Before the 15 March terrorist attacks, there seemed to be a new story every day about apparent tensions between New Zealand and China.

New Zealand was among countries to block the Chinese company Huawei from helping build the 5G network here.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady claimed she was targeted after she published a paper on the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the Pacific.

A major tourism event in Wellington was also postponed and there were reports of New Zealand goods being refused entry into China.

Announcing the trip, Ms Ardern moved to quash further stories about strained relations between the two countries.

"I expect discussions will include a broad range of bilateral, regional and international issues of common interest including on upgrading our free trade agreement, protecting and promoting a rules-based international trading system and combating climate change."

Ms Ardern will travel to Beijing for meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang and will also be formally open the New Zealand Embassy there.

"I travel on Sunday, I have a one day visit on Monday, I'm back in New Zealand on Tuesday. And that is a decision I made to scale it right back from what had been a visit involving three cities to just one day because it didn't feel appropriate for me to be any longer at this point."

The New Zealand China Council executive director, Stephen Jacobi, said it was an opportunity to make progress on upgrading the free trade agreement and on New Zealand's involvement in China's Belt and Road initiative, as well as to explain New Zealand's reasons for its stance on Huawei.

Despite the short timeframe, he believed it would be valuable for the prime minister to go.

"It is disappointing that a larger delegation couldn't accompany the prime minister. But we've been going through a particularly difficult time in New Zealand," he said.

"I'm sure our Chinese friends appreciate that. And I expect they appreciate that, given the sorts of things that we're going through, the prime minister is prepared to get on a plane and go to Beijing. Things can be achieved."

National Party leader Simon Bridges said it was good Ms Ardern was making the trip, but it should have happened long ago.

"There's obviously issues in our relationship though, and I think the only criticism here for me - from the opposition - is that it's good she's going but it's well over a year too late."

Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker is expected to lead a business delegation to China in April.