Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta met her Chinese counterpart Qin Gang for the first time during her recent visit to Beijing. Photo: Chinese Embassy

New Zealand will keep pushing China to use its influence to help end war in Ukraine, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has said in the wake of her Beijing visit.

However, Mahuta says a meaningful peace process must include the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine to internationally agreed boundaries – a position potentially at odds with the Chinese view of the path to peace.

Mahuta last week made the first trip to China by a New Zealand foreign minister since 2018, meeting new Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang as well as his predecessor Wang Yi, who is now the country’s top diplomat as director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

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Speaking to media after her return to New Zealand, the minister said she had used her meetings to press China further on the role it could play in putting an end to the conflict.

“It was an opportunity for me to say to my counterparts that New Zealand, right at the very beginning, believed that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine contravened international law and contravened the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”

With American officials having suggested China was considering the provision of lethal aid to help Russia, Mahuta said she had directly raised New Zealand’s concerns about such a scenario.

“We’d be very concerned, and that’s been clearly stated…we continue because we have diplomatic dialogue with China, we’d absolutely be raising our concern there.”

Qin and Wang had “not overtly” provided an assurance that China would not send weapons to Russia, but had emphasised the peace plan presented to Russian leader Vladimir Putin by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

“In order for a meaningful peace process to commence we would see Russia withdraw its troops [and] return to internationally agreed boundaries with Ukraine in order to commence political dialogue and diplomatic efforts to see peace.”
– Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta

Beijing’s 12-point peace plan calls for an end to hostilities, the resumption of peace talks and respect for the sovereignty of all countries. However, it does not specifically call for a Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory that it has gained by force – a significant stumbling block, given Kyiv views the departure of Russian forces as a precondition for peace talks.

Mahuta did not directly comment on whether she viewed Beijing’s proposal as a credible peace plan, but said: “What we believe, and I said this very clearly both to director Wang Yi and [foreign minister] Qin Gang, was that in order for a meaningful peace process to commence we would see Russia withdraw its troops [and] return to internationally agreed boundaries with Ukraine in order to commence political dialogue and diplomatic efforts to see peace.”

She had also reiterated New Zealand’s position on human rights matters in relation to China, including concern about “increasing repression of the rights of Hong Kong people with regards to freedom of association, freedom of speech, [and] freedom of the media” through national security legislation.

In turn, Qin had “briefly” raised the controversial Aukus alliance between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, acknowledging New Zealand’s concerns about the militarisation of the Pacific region.

Mahuta said she had encouraged China to strengthen regional bodies like the Pacific Islands Forum and pacts like the Biketawa Declaration, which outlined the need for a coordinated response to regional security crises – a reference to Beijing’s failed attempt to agree a Pacific-wide security pact last year.

China: ‘Seek common ground, shelve differences’

In a statement following his meeting with Mahuta, Qin said the two countries should strengthen economic ties while continuing their tradition of “seeking common ground while shelving differences”.

However, Mahuta said she would continue to discuss points of disagreement with China when necessary.

“In order for New Zealand’s independent foreign policy to have legitimacy and agency in terms of influencing a country the size of China, which is a growing superpower, we have to be able to discuss the difficult issues and that will certainly be my approach for the time that I’m stewarding this portfolio.”

The trip had helped to restate the importance of the bilateral relationship, which went beyond trade and the economy, she said.

Mahuta’s trip has been seen in part as laying the groundwork for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to visit China later this year, although on Monday the Prime Minister said there were “still a lot of moving parts” in relation to a potential trip.

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

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