28 Jan 2021

Minister says Australia should follow NZ’s lead on China diplomacy

8:08 pm on 28 January 2021

Minister for trade Damien O'Connor has suggested Australia speak with "more diplomacy" about China, so it too can have a "mature" relationship.

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Minister for trade and export growth Damien O'Connor says the Australia-China relationship is matter for those countries themselves. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

He made the comments in an interview on CNBC's Squawk Box Asia program about the offer from New Zealand's minister of foreign affairs Nanaia Mahuta last December to broker a truce between China and Australia.

At the time, Mahuta said "both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye".

O'Connor today spoke with his Australian counterpart, minister for trade Dan Tehan, "to reiterate, as I said in the interview, that we do not speak for Australia on this or any other matter".

He told CNBC that New Zealand had a "mature relationship with China and we've always been able to raise issues of concern".

"I can't speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships, but clearly if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they too could hopefully be in a similar situation," he said.

O'Connor said "nationalism is not the way forward" and New Zealand hoped to "build multilateral trade and diplomatic relationships across the world and play our part".

According to the ABC, one Australian government source said O'Connor's comments had "not gone down well" in Canberra, but added it would not do any long-lasting damage to two countries' relationship.

"What [New Zealand] has to realise is that China is intent on splitting alliances in the region, and jumping in like this plays into their hands," they said.

Relations between Australia and China hit an historic low last year, after China imposed a range of tariffs on Australian exports, and then lashed out over a damning war crimes report.

A Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson had posted a fake image of an Australian soldier murdering a child, prompting outrage from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

New Zealand weighed in, formally registering its concern with Chinese authorities about the use of an "unfactual post"; again China hit back, questioning what business it was of New Zealand's and suggesting its stance showed it supported the actions of the Australian soldiers, accused of at least 39 unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

O'Connor was unavailable for an interview with RNZ today, but in a statement said "the Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia".

"New Zealand has an independent foreign policy, which allows us to maintain both our closest partnership with Australia and a mature relationship with China."

National Party's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said the comments were not helpful and "smack of a missive from an ivory tower... telling someone in a most undiplomatic way that they've got to be more diplomatic in their discussions with some other country".

"It's a silly thing to do," he said, "you always want to present on the basis of the principles that New Zealand lives by and that's appropriate, but it's not appropriate to start telling a country like Australia to take a leaf out of our book."

In a statement to RNZ, Tehan said: "Our relationship with China is based on an assessment of our national interests. Our approach to trade policy will be guided by three Ps: proactivity, principle and patience.

"We pursue engagement with China on the basis of mutual benefit, and the complementarity of our economies makes us natural trading partners.

"We are always open to dialogue as the best way to resolve differences."

RNZ has approached Australia's minister for foreign affairs Marise Payne for comment.

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