Jacinda Ardern concedes managing her country’s relationship with China isn’t easy, with some issues becoming “harder to reconcile” as New Zealand continues to chart an independent foreign policy.
On Monday morning, the New Zealand prime minister waded back into the muddy waters of the Sino-NZ relationship with a speech to the China Business Summit in Auckland.
New Zealand finds itself in the middle of a diplomatic tug-of-war between China, its biggest trading partner, and western allies Australia, the USA, UK and Canada – the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.
Last month, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta sparked controversy by saying New Zealand would no longer seek to criticise China on non-intelligence matters through Five Eyes.
For that, she was accused by conservative commentators in Five Eyes nations of abandoning New Zealand’s traditional alliances.
However, both Ms Mahuta and Ms Ardern have been clear New Zealand won’t shy away from critiquing China.
Indeed, on Monday, Ms Ardern said the reasons to challenge Beijing were becoming stronger and more plentiful.
“Managing the relationship is not always going to be easy and there can be no guarantees,” she said.
“Some differences challenge New Zealand’s interests and values.
“As China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems and the interests and values that shape those systems are becoming harder to reconcile.”
Ms Ardern cited rollbacks of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and the fate of the Uighur people in China’s Xinjiang province as two issues which deeply concerned New Zealand.
She also pointed to her record of publicly and privately rebuking China on these issues as proof New Zealand would not walk away from criticism.
The Labour leader also said those disagreements weren’t enough to turn away from China.
“Given our two countries’ different histories, world views and political and legal systems, New Zealand and China are going to take different perspectives on some important issues,” she said.
“This need not derail our relationship. It is simply a reality.”
Ms Ardern confirmed New Zealand’s steadfast support for the international rules-based system, specifically mentioning the law of the sea in a subtle censure of China’s advancement in the South China Sea.
China’s abuses in Xinjiang are likely to challenge Ms Ardern’s government further in coming weeks.
Last month, the Canadian and UK parliaments declared the situation genocide and in New Zealand, right-wing opposition party Act is preparing a similar motion for debate.