28 Jun 2023

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets PM Chris Hipkins, says NZ is 'friend and partner'

11:24 am on 28 June 2023
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins meets Chinese President Xi Jinping, 27 June 2023.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins meets Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

There appeared to be a warm reception for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins during Tuesday night's 40-minute meeting in Beijing with one of the most powerful men in the world.

There was one particular road bump in the lead-up to the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including an Australian media report with an unnamed source saying New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta had been "harangued" for an hour by her Chinese counterpart during a meeting in China in March.

Neither Hipkins nor Mahuta outright denied the report, with Mahuta saying repeatedly there were "robust" discussions where each side laid out their position very clearly.

That certainly raised questions about how much pressure China is exerting against the backdrop of the superpower fight for influence between China and the United States, a long-standing and traditional Western partner of New Zealand.

There was no sign of friction in the opening remarks the media were privy to, with Xi describing New Zealand as a "friend and partner" and the relationship one to which he was "always attaching a great deal of importance".

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping said the relationship with New Zealand was one to which he attached a great deal of importance. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Afterwards, Hipkins described the meeting as "warm… and incredibly constructive" and "an opportunity for relatively free-flowing dialogue on a range of issues where New Zealand and China have mutual interests".

He hoped he had started to build a rapport with Xi, saying he "found him easy to speak to" and at no point was the conversation "adversarial".

"The relationship between China and the US was discussed, the situation in Ukraine was discussed, the Pacific was discussed, human rights were discussed," Hipkins said.

However, one of those most sensitive issues - human rights, and most notably would include treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang - "wasn't discussed in great depth"; rather New Zealand's position on human rights was "referenced".

"The economic relationship… was, by far, the biggest topic that we discussed, but we also discussed a broad range of international issues, including international relationships. So the Pacific, the US, Ukraine, all were discussed - I wasn't keeping a stopwatch," Hipkins told reporters.

The balancing act New Zealand constantly has to strike has been well-traversed, in the context of its Western allies and partners - one that was playing out in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaking during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing, 27 June 2023.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the relationship between China and the US, the situation in Ukraine, the Pacific and human rights were discussed in his meeting with the Chinese leader. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Asked if China had specifically asked New Zealand not to "drift further into the US orbit", Hipkins demurred, saying he did not want to speak on behalf of the Chinese.

"While there's an easy answer to that question, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to give it."

He did say he was "able to restate New Zealand's position that we welcome dialogue between China and the US and with reference to recent dialogue opportunities, including the visit by [US] Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, here to Beijing just recently.

"Certainly New Zealand welcomes that. We think that it's good that China and the US are engaged in discussions."

New Zealand's encouragement of China to "use any influence that it may have to bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine" and its opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine were also "restated".

Another position restated was recognition "the Pacific are independent countries, they can make their own decisions and that New Zealand seeks to be a trusted partner in the Pacific".

Hipkins was also asked if he would echo Xi's sentiment and call China a friend and partner.

"I would describe the relationship between New Zealand and China as an incredibly important one," he said.

"We cooperate, we work together on areas where it's in our interests to do that. We disagree from time to time, and we convey those disagreements."

Asked again, he said he would certainly "describe it as a warm relationship and warm conversation".

"It's an international partnership… it's a friendship because we are in regular dialogue and we work together on areas where we have mutual interests."

He eventually said it "depends on the context, but yes, by and large".

Hipkins reiterated the strong economic focus to the talks, with the borders in China and New Zealand now fully open and getting momentum behind their respective economies important to both countries.

For New Zealand, that was about boosting and diversifying trade, and getting the numbers of Chinese tourists and international students back up to pre-Covid levels, which will be the focus for the remaining days of the trade mission.

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