Differences between New Zealand and its top trading partner China are becoming harder to reconcile as Beijing’s role in the world grows and changes, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
The comments come as New Zealand faces pressure from some elements among Western allies over its reluctance to use the Five Eyes intelligence and security alliance to criticise Beijing.
In a speech at the China Business Summit in Auckland, Ardern said there are things on which China and New Zealand “do not, cannot, and will not agree”, but added these differences need not define their relationship.
“It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile,” Ardern said.
“This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo Pacific region, but also in Europe and other regions, are also grappling with,” she added.
In comments that sparked some reaction among Western allies, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said last month she was uncomfortable expanding the role of Five Eyes, which includes Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States.
“This speech appears to be crafted to deflect surprisingly sharp and severe criticism from commentators after Mahuta’s remarks last month,” said Geoffrey Miller, international analyst at the political website Democracy Project.
However, the comments do not change New Zealand’s overall shift to a more China-friendly, or at least more neutral position, he said.
“Ardern and Mahuta are selling the new stance as New Zealand advancing an ‘independent foreign policy’ that is not loyal to any major bloc,” he added.
China, which takes almost one-third of New Zealand’s exports, has accused the Five Eyes of ganging up on it by issuing statements on Hong Kong and the treatment of ethnic Muslim Uyhgurs in Xinjiang.
New Zealand’s parliament on Tuesday is set to look at a motion put forward by a smaller party to declare the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide.
Ardern said New Zealand would continue to speak about these issues individually as well as through its partners, noting that managing the relationship with China is not always going to be easy.
China’s Ambassador to New Zealand, Wu Xi, who also spoke at the event warned that Hong Kong and Xinjiang related issues were China’s internal affairs.
“We hope that the New Zealand side could hold an objective and a just a position, abide by international law and not interfere in China’s internal affairs so as to maintain the sound development of our bilateral relations,” she said in her speech.
Beijing is engaged in a diplomatic row with Australia and has imposed trade restrictions after Canberra lobbied for an international inquiry into the source of the coronavirus. China denies the curbs are reprisals, saying reduced imports of Australian products are the result of buyers’ own decisions.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China had recently acted “more aggressively abroad” and was behaving “increasingly in adversarial ways.”
When asked if New Zealand would risk trade punishment with China, as did Australia, to uphold values, Ardern said: “It would be a concern to anyone in New Zealand if the consideration was ‘Do we speak on this or are we too worried of economic impacts?'”