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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tess McClure in Auckland

New Zealand foreign minister to visit counterpart in China

New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta.
New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta says she will discuss trade and the environment with her counterpart Qin Gang in China, among other issues. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, will leave for China on Tuesday in the first visit to Beijing by a New Zealand minister since 2019.

Mahuta, who will meet her counterpart Qin Gang, said she would raise New Zealand’s concerns about key security challenges at the meeting, such as the “illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine”, and advocate for outcomes reflecting New Zealand’s values on human rights issues.

“New Zealand’s relationship with China is one of our most important, complex and wide ranging,” she said. “I intend to discuss areas where we cooperate, such as on trade, people-to-people and climate and environmental issues.”

China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner by a considerable margin, accounting for about 30% of New Zealand’s total exports. That economic exposure has created a difficult line for New Zealand to walk – joining its allies in the condemnation of some human rights issues, including the internment and repression of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang, while avoiding some of the harder-line rhetoric that saw allies like Australia clobbered by punitive trade tariffs. The relationship has been strained in recent years by Beijing’s increased interventions and presence in the Indo-Pacific region and South China Sea. In 2021, Mahuta warned New Zealand exporters of a possible future “storm” of anger from China, saying it “may only be a matter of time”.

Speaking at a post-cabinet press conference on Monday, prime minister Chris Hipkins said China was “a very important relationship to New Zealand”, and it was “important that we reestablish those in-person opportunities to engage country-to-country”. Hipkins said he may also visit China later this year, but no trip had been confirmed yet. “I certainly haven’t taken off the table the potential for me to visit China at some point later this year,” he said.

Mahuta’s trip to Beijing will coincide with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia to hold talks with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Asked if the timing of Mahuta’s visit was appropriate, given Xi’s support for Putin as the invasion of Ukraine continued, Hipkins said: “Let me again restate our position. We are emphatically opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We are also very opposed to any suggestion that other countries might support Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Our position on that absolutely remains.”

On human rights issues, he said “Our position has not changed” and “the opportunity to travel in person and to raise issues in person I think is an important one. This will be our first significant in-person ministerial visit since the global pandemic, so it is an opportunity for us to raise a range of issues.”

Mahuta said in a statement that she would “continue to advocate for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand’s interests and values, including on human rights. I also intend to raise New Zealand’s concerns about key regional and global security challenges, including the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The trip follows the easing of Covid-19 travel curbs between the countries, she said.

“China is integral to New Zealand’s economic recovery but our relationship is far broader – spanning cultural, educational and sporting links.”

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