Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has denied New Zealand’s relationship with China has deteriorated under her government, following the latest bilateral “scheduling” difficulty.

National leader Simon Bridges has accused Ardern and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters of failing to repair the “steadily deteriorating relationship” between the two countries.

The launch event for the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, due to take place at Te Papa on February 20, has been postponed due to what Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis described as a “scheduling issue”.

“It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when they can coordinate the schedule…it’s an issue for them, we’re just keen to get on with things and no doubt it will happen in the near future,” Davis said.

Ardern’s plans to visit Beijing last year were also put on hold due to scheduling problems, with her office saying in late November it was “difficult to find a time that suits everyone”.

Shortly after the trip was put on hold, the GCSB followed other Five Eyes nations in seeking to block Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei from having a role in the 5G mobile network upgrade, citing “significant” security concerns.

The Huawei news followed a number of other moves which appeared to harden the Government’s line on China, such as its defence policy statement.

‘Steadily deteriorating’ ties

Speaking to media, Bridges said the relationship between New Zealand and China appeared to be “steadily deteriorating”, with Peters making careless remarks on issues such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Ardern failing to rein him in.

While New Zealand was right to hold its line on an independent foreign policy, that did not mean ministers should not be careful in their remarks, he said.

“It’s not always the what, it’s the how – I don’t think this is about Huawei in any way, shape or form, and decisions made there, under legislation,” Bridges said.

“I think it’s all the other things where our approach was to make sure there were those conversations behind closed doors in temperate, serious ways, not jumping around like a cowboy in the way Winston Peters has.”

“There are challenges there…our job is to make sure that we always in all our relationships represent New Zealand’s best interests and we do that.”

Ardern said she would not characterise the relationship as having deteriorated, arguing the Government had been “incredibly consistent” in how it approached diplomacy with China and other countries.

“It has always been a complex relationship, one that is particularly strong economically, our people-to-people exchanges increasing, particularly through tourism.

“There are challenges there though, our job is to make sure that we always – in all our relationships – represent New Zealand’s best interests, and we do that.”

The Huawei decision had been made independently of the Government and based on “vendor- and country-neutral” legislation, she said.

Ardern said it was “not for me to question the rationale that’s been given” for the cancellation of the tourism event launch, saying she had to take the explanation at face value.

No head in the sand

However, she denied the Government had its head in the sand when it came to China – an accusation Labour levelled at the last government when it ran into its own diplomatic problems.

“Absolutely not – I’ve acknowledged the complexities of the relationship, the challenges in the relationship, but actually we’ve had some consistency as well in the way that we’ve responded to those.”

Ardern also downplayed suggestions politics was to blame for an Air NZ flight to Shanghai being forced to return to Auckland after several hours in the air.

Stuff has reported the delay was due not to problems with the relationship, but the flight’s paperwork including references to Taiwan.

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

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