New Zealand wants a more mature relationship with China that goes beyond trade ties and gives room for disagreement, particularly on issues of human rights, the Pacific nation’s foreign minister said yesterday.
New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta’s comments came after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this week that differences with its top trading partner were becoming harder to reconcile, and that the country’s parliament unanimously declared human rights abuses were taking place against Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region, angering Beijing.
“It’s important for us to ensure we are respectful, consistent and predictable in the way we convey issues we agree on, but also on issues we don’t agree on, and it’s part of our maturing relationship,” Mahuta said.
New Zealand has major trade ties to China and has long been touted by Beijing as a model of its relations with Western countries.
Ardern’s government, which won a second term in office in October last year, has criticized China over the treatment of Uighurs, human rights abuses in Hong Kong and backed Taiwan’s participation at the WHO despite a warning from Beijing.
Mahuta and Ardern have said they are focused on an independent foreign policy that is not loyal to any major bloc, a position that is popular domestically and followed by previous Labour Party-led governments including the nine-year administration, until 2008, of former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark.
Mahuta said last month that she was uncomfortable expanding the role of the Five Eyes, a post-war intelligence grouping that also includes Australia, Britain, Canada and the US.
China has accused Five Eyes of ganging up on it by issuing statements on Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighurs.
Mahuta’s comments were questioned by New Zealand’s Western allies who asked if it feared criticizing Beijing on its human rights records.
Mahuta said she stood by her comments.
“It [Five Eyes] doesn’t have to be the first port of call all the time on every issue in the human rights space,” Mahuta said. “And I have consistently said that it’s important that we build a broader base of support for the issues on the human rights front.”
Foreign policy commentators say the mixed messaging is confusing.
“There is clearly a need for a coherent foreign policy line coming out from New Zealand,” said Anna Powles, senior lecturer at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University.
“This doesn’t help our allies and partners. It’s about our relationship with our closest ally, which is Australia, and our strategic partnerships,” she said.
A diplomatic dispute between China and Australia worsened last year after Canberra lobbied for an international inquiry into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has not affected China’s ties with New Zealand, as the nations upgraded a free-trade agreement in January.
Mahuta, the first Maori woman to hold the post, was a surprise pick last year as foreign minister.
“If there’s anything new that I’m bringing to this picture it’s a values based approach, which is drawing from our bicultural values ... as we continue our strong bilateral and multilateral relationships across the region and the world,” she said.
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