As US-China tensions show no signs of cooling, Jacinda Ardern has backed her government’s position on hot-button issues like Hong Kong and Taiwan – but Beijing’s top representative in New Zealand fired a warning shot across the Prime Minister’s bows

New Zealand’s relationship with China should not be hindered by disagreement over issues like Hong Kong’s controversial national security law, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says – a position which did not find favour with the Asian superpower’s ambassador in Wellington.

Speaking at the China Business Summit in Auckland on Monday, Ardern said the New Zealand-China relationship was in good shape despite what she delicately described as “different perspectives on some issues”.

The Government attracted China’s ire in May when it backed Taiwan’s push for an observer role within the World Health Organisation, while more recently Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters announced a review of New Zealand’s relationship with Hong Kong after Beijing lawmakers rammed through a draconian national security law.

New Zealand, Ardern said, was “an open democracy with a focus on the rule of law”.

“We take a principles-based approach to our foreign policy, and we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand interests”.

The Government’s positions on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang were important to Kiwis’ identities, she said.

“We have been entirely predictable in our engagement and there’s nothing more important at this time than having a really predictable, reliable approach to these issues.”

“Many New Zealanders have also invested in Hong Kong or do business there because of its independent judiciary and high degree of autonomy.

“It is, then, quite natural for us to raise concerns about Hong Kong’s security law – we believe we are representing real and actual issues for New Zealanders.”

Ardern said independent concerns were also behind Huawei being blocked from a role in New Zealand’s 5G network, despite what she described as “a lot of pressure placed on or at least, some perceived pressure around engagement with Huawei from a number of different quarters” – seemingly a reference to the public comments of American politicians like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In a question and answer session after her speech, Ardern sought to downplay a question about how she would handle the US-China rivalry by suggesting such tensions were not new.

“This is not new, and again this is where New Zealand is well-placed: we have been entirely predictable in our engagement and there’s nothing more important at this time than having a really predictable, reliable approach to these issues.”

Ardern may have seen New Zealand’s concerns as predictable, but that did not stop Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi from firing back in her own address.

Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi claimed that human rights concerns related to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang were internal matters for China only to address. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Wu opened with praise for New Zealand’s Covid-19 response – specifically, “great leadership by the Prime Minister, the professional management of the New Zealand Government, and the great unity of all the Kiwi people” – before a thinly-veiled reference to the Great Power rivalry of recent years.

“The future of mankind and the destinies of all the countries still lie in cooperation rather than confrontation. Pursuing a zero-sum game and portraying others as adversaries or enemies will lead to nowhere and will only harm its own interests.”

While the fundamentals of the New Zealand-China relationship were strong, Wu said, “we should not take our relationship for granted, [and] we should make sure that our bilateral relations are immune from various virus[es] in these trying times”.

“Instead of trying to change or remodel the other, we respect each other…

“China has always followed the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs. At the same time, China stands ready to…safeguard its core and major interests. Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all touch on China’s sovereignty and security and these are all China’s internal affairs.”

Wu offered a more detailed defence of the national security law, claiming it was “designed to hold accountable a very small number of criminals who put national security in serious jeopardy” and did not affect Hong Kong’s autonomy or judicial independence (although many experts argue otherwise).

Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, said it was “prudent” for New Zealand to review its relationship with Hong Kong, given some Kiwi businesses had headquartered themselves there in the past due to its independence from the Chinese legal system.

Young said there was no question the international environment had changed with US-China tensions ratcheting up, and each superpower wanting New Zealand to take its side.

“Now, I think an independent foreign policy can be interpreted in different ways, but the way I would interpret it is that New Zealand will listen to its major trading partners and traditional allies and friends and partners, but still make decisions based on its own interests.

“Is it getting harder to navigate between those different positions? Yes, but I think to date, the New Zealand Government has been doing quite a good job.”

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

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