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China urges New Zealand to work together and ‘rise above distractions’

China has urged New Zealand to work in “the same direction, make the pie of cooperation bigger, rise above external distractions”, in response to comments made by foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta in a Guardian interview.

Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said that progress in relations could be achieved “on the premise that the two sides have long been committed to mutual respect, mutual trust and win-win results”. He urged Wellington to work with China to advance a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Mahuta told the Guardian that New Zealand could find itself at the heart of a “storm” of anger from China, and exporters should diversify to ensure they could ride out a less-rosy relationship with Beijing.

She pointed to the experience of neighbouring Australia, which is in a deepening trade war with China. “We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she said.

“The signal I’m sending to exporters is that they need to think about diversification in this context – Covid-19, broadening relationships across our region, and the buffering aspects of if something significant happened with China. Would they be able to withstand the impact?”

On Wednesday, in the wake of the comments from Zhao, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern weighed in, saying Mahuta’s comments did not mark a shift in the country’s position on China.

“If anyone had read the speech that was delivered … by Minister Mahuta roughly a month ago, she very much [spoke of] New Zealand’s position on these matters. And I don’t consider that to be a change in our position, or our rhetoric as all,” she said.

New Zealand is highly dependent on China for trade. China accounts for more than $33bn of New Zealand’s total trade, and 28% of exports. It is New Zealand’s largest export partner by a significant margin, and a key market for many of New Zealand’s key industries, including dairy, meat, forestry, tourism, and international education.

As Australia’s relationship with China has deteriorated, it has been hit by tariffs on many goods, as well as instructions from Beijing telling Chinese citizens to avoid travel to Australia. Observing that experience has raised concerns in New Zealand that the country would be extremely vulnerable if it provoked Beijing’s ire.

China’s hawkish state media tabloid, the Global Times, said in an editorial the interview demonstrated increasing geopolitical pressure on New Zealand, but that the country could avoid “the storm” if it continued its “pragmatic” dealings.

“At a time when bilateral trade ties are supposed to foster stronger relations between nations, there is no denying that geopolitical struggles are bringing headwinds to China-New Zealand relationship as the New Zealand government has been criticized by its Western allies for being “soft” toward China,” the editorial said. “For some time in the future, such pressure may continue to affect New Zealand, blocking it from maintaining normal ties with China.”

In a separate news report, the Global Times said New Zealand enjoyed a steady relationship with China “due largely to Wellington’s relatively independent approach toward China from the US-led Five Eye alliance’s relentless aggression and political attacks against China”.

Zhao responded to Mahuta’s remarks at Tuesday’s foreign ministry press briefing: “China and New Zealand are each other’s important cooperation partners. The considerable progress in China-New Zealand relations is achieved on the premise that the two sides have long been committed to mutual respect, mutual trust and win-win results,” he said.

“We hope New Zealand can carry forward the spirit of ‘striving to be the first’ and the principle of mutual respect and equal treatment, work with China toward the same direction, make the pie of cooperation bigger, rise above external distractions, and jointly advance China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Minister Mahuta’s office declined to comment further.

Additional reporting by Helen Davidson

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