New Zealand is “carefully managing” its relationship with China and avoids getting pulled from “pillar and post,” Nanaia Mahuta, the nation’s foreign minister, said without confronting China on human rights issues.
She had concluded a visit to China in March, where she met with her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing for what she later described as “robust talks.”
“China’s a complex relationship that we manage very carefully, and our approach to China is that we are consistent, predictable, and respectful in the way that we manage that relationship,” Mahuta said in an interview with Reuters on Friday, June 30.
Her comments came just as Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, leading a trade delegation focusing on economic partnership and trade, finalized his six-day visit to China, including meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.
In a statement after Hipkins’ meeting with Xi, there was no mention of human rights concerns, a visit to the Xinjiang forced-labor camps on the program, nor any reference to the military tensions around the Taiwan Strait.
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Both were at least formally noted in the readout of the meeting between former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Xi in November 2022.
This time, Hipkins did not make mention of any hot topics around Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong; though he said that he and Xi had discussed trade, support for “the international rules-based order,” as well as the war in Ukraine.
“We also engaged on areas where our cultures and political systems differ, and I reiterated we will always advocate for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand’s independent foreign policy or interests and values in a respectful but consistent way,” he said.
Business as usual
China is New Zealand’s most important business partner by a large margin, and New Zealand has long been seen as a moderate or even absent voice on China in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
The country’s tone on security and China’s growing presence in the South Pacific toughened last year after China and the Solomon Islands struck a security pact.
However, according to Mahuta, the lukewarm stance on human rights during the prime minister’s visit does not indicate a shift in her cabinet’s attitude.
“Not at all. It doesn’t represent a shift,” Mahuta said, according to the press agency. “What it represents is that we have a range of interests with China.”
“I’m under no shadow of a doubt that trade and economic issues would’ve been discussed,” Mahuta continued.
“Human rights issues, the war in Ukraine, those are all issues that would’ve been covered during the context of the visit, and the focus was on what other areas of common ground and opportunities could we seek out in our mature relationship.”
As Hipkins prepared for his meeting with Xi, Mahuta’s trip came under scrutiny this week when The Australian news media broke of a combative meeting between Mahuta and her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, after the former prime minister Jacinda Ardern sternly condemned a proposed security pact between China and the Solomon Islands.
A report by the newspaper said Mahuta received an hour-long “epic haranguing” and an “almighty dressing down” at the meeting in March.
Mahuta, on her part, said on Tuesday (June 27) the conversation with Qin was “very robust.” At the meeting, however, she noted “deep concerns regarding the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.”
“I would say that China is very assertive in the way that it conveys its interests,” Mahuta told reporters with the Guardian. “The nature of a mature relationship is we don’t have to recoil from saying the things that need to be said.”
Hipkins somewhat backed Mahuta, saying the foreign ministers’ meeting had been constructive and that “constructive meetings don’t always involve unanimous agreement.”
Reuters contributed to this article.