Chinese ambassador touts openness, regional 'peace and stability'

5:01 pm on 1 August 2022

Conflict in the Pacific is the last thing China wants, its ambassador says, as he talks up the country's economy, openness and commitment to multilateralism.

Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong both spoke at the China Business Summit in Auckland this morning - their views largely aligning, in rhetoric at least.

Wang's speech began with economics but ended with regional security, saying China was opposed to unilateralism, hegemonism, cold-war mentality, military alliances, and ideological "or otherwise" divisions.

He said both countries held major stakes in preserving peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific "as our common home".

"Tensions, let alone conflicts or wars, are the last thing China wants to see in this region," he said.

"China is committed to working with New Zealand and other partners to jointly safeguard peace and stability and oppose any attempt or provocations to create tensions or stoke conflict in this region.

"Both want to see peace and stability in the region and both want to support Pacific Island developing countries in their efforts to address the existential challenge of climate change and pursue wider sustainable development."

Ardern also spoke about New Zealand's "fundamental interest in its peace and stability" in the region, her comments largely matching the rhetoric seen in previous speeches.

"Even as China becomes more assertive in the pursuit of its interests, there are still shared interests on which we can and should cooperate," she said.

"Our differences need not define us. But we cannot ignore them. This will mean continuing to speak out on some issues - sometimes with others and sometimes alone."

New Zealand maintains an independent foreign policy while relying on China as its top trading partner, and navigating that conflict while remaining on-side with western partners has been one of the defining aspects of the country's foreign policy.

This speech was no exception, Ardern calling on China to do more to challenge Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

"As history shows us repeatedly, when large countries disregard sovereignty and territorial integrity with a sense of impunity, it does not bode well particularly for small countries like New Zealand.

"In response to increasing tensions or risks in the region - be they in the Pacific, the South China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait - New Zealand's position remains consistent - we call for adherence to international rules and norms; for diplomacy, de-escalation and dialogue rather than threats, force and coercion."

"That's why as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and in line with its commitment to the UN Charter, we continue to urge China to be clear that it does not support the Russian invasion, and have called on China to use its access and influence to help bring an end to the conflict."

While he did not commit to anything related to China, Wang offered assurances of the country's adherence to the international rule of law that has been a touchstone for Ardern in previous speeches on the matter.

"China is firmly committed to upholding multilateralism, the international system with the UN at its core, the international order based on international law, and the norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN charter," he said.

Ardern said New Zealand would continue to speak out on some issues it disagreed with China on, and highlighted "increasing tensions or risks in the region in the Pacific, the South China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait".

"We have done this recently on issues in the Pacific. We also have consistently expressed our concerns about economic coercion, human rights, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong."

"Managing the differences in our relationship is not always going to be easy and there are no guarantees, but as a government we continue to work hard - through dialogue and diplomacy."

Wang too spoke of mutual respect and a certain amount of agreeing to disagree.

"We have no intention of shying away from our differences or divergences with the New Zealand side. It is our firm belief however that what we have in common far outweigh our differences," he said.

This year marks 50 since official diplomatic relations began between the two countries. Wang looked to the future, calling for commitment, consolidation, and growth in the relationship between the two countries.

Commitment to the relationship "no matter how the international situation evolves"; consolidation in the belief that "what we have in common far outweigh our differences"; and growth into new areas including "beyond the strictly bilateral relationship".

"New and growth areas may include climate change, sustainable agriculture, public health and pandemic preparedness and response, medicines, infrastructure development including BRI (Belt-and-Road Initiative)-related cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges," he said.

"Beyond the strictly bilateral relationship, China and New Zealand have between us brought shared interests in, common or similar positions on maintaining global and regional peace, stability, and promoting common prosperity and global sustainable development."

On economics, Wang said China was no exception to constrained growth because of the Covid-19 pandemic, though the country's economy has been holding up stronger than many others with the National Bureau of Statistics reporting 2.5 percent inflation in June.

Wang touted China's efforts to open up more broadly to the rest of the world.

"Just as president Xi Jinping has put it on many occasions no matter how the world changes, China's faith in and its commitment to reform and opening up will not waiver," he said.

"China's door of opening up will never close, it will only open wider."

He highlighted a 17.8 percent increase in two-way trade with BRI partner countries in the first half of 2022, as well as increased access to foreign investment, and international cooperation on BRI, and opposition on the world stage to protectionism.

He also spoke about the need for "a responsible media in helping the people on both sides to see things as they are through the veil or dust of mis- or sometimes even disinformation".

Wang said that as ambassador he was confident that "like the mighty Waikato River ... although there might be ups and downs or tiffs and tats, our relationship will indomitably forge ahead".

For her part, Ardern wanted to build on the relationship with a return to in-person ministerial visits.

"On this a few plans are afoot. I know there have been indications our Foreign Ministers will exchange visits when conditions allow," she said. "When China's Covid provisions make it possible, I hope to lead a business delegation to China to renew and refresh in-person connections."

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