27 Mar 2023

Nanaia Mahuta - 'We take seriously' New Zealand's relationship with China

6:33 am on 27 March 2023
(230324) -- BEIJING, March 24, 2023 (Xinhua) -- Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang meets with visiting New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in Beijing, capital of China, March 24, 2023. (Xinhua/Yan Yan) (Photo by Yan Yan / XINHUA / Xinhua via AFP)

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang meets with visiting New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in Beijing. Photo: YAN YAN / XINHUA / AFP

The foreign minister has returned from a visit to China saying the relationship is very important and complex, requiring "continual management" to make sure the two countries do not lose sight of each others' views and perspectives.

Nanaia Mahuta's trip has also paved the way for a possible visit by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins this year - the last was by Jacinda Ardern in 2019.

New Zealand has a constant balancing act between China, its largest trading partner, and traditional security and defence partners, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The race is on for influence in the Indo-Pacific, with increased militarisation from both sides; the most recent shot across China's bow was confirmation of the three-way defence pact AUKUS.

The message from China is the relationship is strong; it appreciates New Zealand's "objective and friendly approach" and is keen to pursue opportunities to increase trade and economic co-operation.

Mahuta told RNZ there were a range of issues at play "beyond trade and the economy"; and that includes "identifying areas of opportunity, as well as being able to have conversations on the issues that we don't agree on".

"That's why we take seriously the way in which we look after the relationship with China," she said.

Mahuta and China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang also discussed the "possibility of a visit by the prime minister to China this year at a mutually agreeable time".

"We look forward to the resumption of a range of in-person high level discussions and officials' dialogues, including on foreign affairs, climate change, human rights, the Pacific, and trade, which provide a valuable platform for engagement," she said.

Ardern's original plan in 2019 was to visit Beijing and lead a trade delegation to other parts of the country, but that had to be cut right back to a few days of high level political visits after the March 15 mosque attacks, and strict Covid lockdowns in China had recently restricted travel.

Hipkins said last week he "certainly hadn't taken off the table the potential" for him to visit China "at some point later this year", but would not say if he had received a a formal invitation.

"There's still quite a lot of moving parts, in terms of my international travel for this year... and so we haven't locked down the programme."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speaks during an interview at the New Zealand embassy in Beijing on March 25, 2023. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP)

New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speaks during an interview at the New Zealand embassy in Beijing on 25 March, 2023. Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP

Mahuta met Qin for the first time in Beijing, as well as her former foreign counterpart, Wang Yi. Despite the positive statements, there remain several areas of disagreement: the human rights situation in Xinjiang, "developments" in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

"I emphasised Aotearoa New Zealand's interest in a peaceful, stable and resilient Pacific region and the importance of engaging through existing regional institutions and arrangements, in particular on regional security matters," Mahuta said.

In a statement after their meeting, Qin Gang said "China and New Zealand have always adhered to mutual respect, equal treatment, win-win cooperation and seeking common ground while shelving differences".

"The two sides should earnestly follow through on the common understandings, and strive for greater development of the China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership in the new era.

"China is ready to work with New Zealand to continue the sound momentum of high-level exchanges and increase political mutual trust.

"Efforts should be made to well [sic] implement the upgraded free trade agreement between China and New Zealand and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, unleash policy dividends, and tap into the potential for cooperation."

Former foreign minister Wang Yi said the bilateral relationship had "long been at the forefront of China's relations with developed Western countries and... China appreciates New Zealand's objective and friendly view of China's development and its practical and positive policy towards China".

Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Mahuta also reiterated New Zealand's "condemnation of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine", restating New Zealand's commitment to the United Nations Charter and its "defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity", during "wide-ranging" discussions covering "all aspects" of the bilateral relationship.

She told RNZ she had a "useful" conversation with Qin "in relation to the most recent visit of President Xi to Russia".

"New Zealand, under the former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and certainly in my role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, urges China to use its influence with Russia to see an end to the war in Ukraine."

Wang Yi said the two sides "exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis" and he "stressed that at present, the most pressing task is to cease fire and bring the conflict to an end as well as resume peace talks".

"China will continue to play a constructive role in promoting political settlement," Wang said.

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