Incoming Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters says concerns about Chinese influence in New Zealand are not getting the coverage they should be – but he has dodged questions about whether he still wants an inquiry into a National MP with links to Chinese military intelligence.

Speaking to media in New Zealand First’s caucus room on Wednesday afternoon, Peters said a report by Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady outlining concerns with China’s growing influence needed to be taken seriously.

“It’s early days and we’re not going to get sidetracked and detoured here, but the fact is that professor, that report of Canterbury University is a seriously internationally recognised report, it has been on ABC in Australia and elsewhere in the world and it’s not getting the coverage it should be here – but it’s over to you, you’re the fourth estate,” Peters said.

During the election campaign, Peters called for a full inquiry into Dr Jian Yang after Newsroom revealed the National MP studied and taught at an elite Chinese spy school, attracting the interest of our Security Intelligence Service.

Since then, documents released under the Official Information Act have revealed Yang did not disclose his time at the Chinese institutes that trained spies when applying for New Zealand residency and citizenship (he has denied making false disclosures, saying he declared the “partnership” universities at which he studied).

However, Peters did not directly answer questions about whether he still wanted an inquiry, instead saying it was a matter of “trying to put the record straight” on whether Yang had been defamed as he alleged.

“I don’t think an MP should be defamed in the way that he is if it’s not true, now what do you think about that?…

“I said it before the election and I make it very clear that i think this is an allegation that has to be cleared up, that’s what I said before the election, I don’t deny that but I would have thought everybody in the press gallery would be concerned that somebody has by one of their colleagues been so maliciously maligned.”

Australia-NZ relationship ‘needs work’

Peters also expanded somewhat on his plans as Foreign Affairs Minister, saying he brought “a thing called experience, which is rather important on the international scene” and had improved relations with the United States and East Asia during his last stint.

“There are a number of things internationally which I think New Zealand has a capability of having a strong voice on. Even to the extent of we do not think that North Korea is an utterly hopeless case.

“We do not think for example that China is the reason why. We need to better understand that region and make our contribution. Albeit as a small country, but as an informed one.”

Peters mentioned his success in getting Kiwi bird watchers into North Korea to collect data on shorebirds, saying: “It was an unusual outcome, but maybe we can shoot higher this time and might possibly be successful.”

He would continue the focus on New Zealand’s neighbours as “our number one priority”, and hinted at a boost to MFAT resources.

“We do need to be a good international neighbour wherever we are, and I do hope that this time when we talk about punching above our weight we have the resources to justify that statement.”

Peters also said the Government had to “work seriously…to better our relationship with Australia”, after some recent fallings out over Australian policy changes that affected Kiwi expats.

“I think we can’t deny it that here we are in October 2017 and our relationship is not what it should be. I think the Prime Minister, the Labour Party, everyone in this coalition understands that and we’re going to set out to try and prove it as fast as we can.”

During the election, incoming Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested reciprocal action if Kiwi expats were shut out of tertiary education in Australia, but Peters suggested that would not be a useful approach.

“There is a way we can work our way through this and that will certainly be the ambition of New Zealand First and myself. In the end…the greater education of Australians in New Zealand could only enhance both countries…but on the other side, we need to better understand what volume [of Kiwi students] Australia was taking, and it is not a small amount of money they are talking about.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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