China tries to court New Zealand with offer to work together in helping Pacific islands recover from Covid-19

·4-min read

China has urged New Zealand to increase cooperation between the two countries, including helping the Pacific islands recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beijing has stepped up engagement with Wellington, which is the only member of the Five Eyes alliance to take a divergent approach towards Beijing amid rising tensions.

The two sides have neither “historical grievances” nor “actual conflicts”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his counterpart Nanaia Mahuta in a video conference held on Tuesday.

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He said both parties should make good use of their upgraded free-trade agreement and speed up cooperation through China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Wang also identified clean energy, the circular economy and technological innovation as areas where they could cooperate.

Wang said China is willing to strengthen dialogue with New Zealand on addressing climate change and is willing to communicate with New Zealand on the values of democracy and human rights through “various appropriate methods”.

He also said the two sides can use their respective advantages to work with Pacific island nations in fighting Covid-19 and helping the economic recovery.

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China has expanded its influence in the Pacific islands in recent years with heavy investment through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Zhang Jie, a senior researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said its growing influence had alarmed Australia, which has extensive interests in the region.

Eleven Pacific island countries, including Papua New Guinea and Fiji, signed belt and road memorandums with China in 2018, while the United States has been working with allies including Japan, Australia and New Zealand to help Pacific island nations.

Many of these countries rely on tourism and have been hard hit by the pandemic, Zhang continued, and it is likely that China and New Zealand can strengthen cooperation in the region in areas such as vaccine distribution and trade in the future.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: AP
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: AP

China is New Zealand‘s largest trading partner, with the value of imports and exports between the two countries reaching more than NZ$31 billion (US$22.4 billion) last year, according to the New Zealand foreign ministry.

The two countries also moved to eliminate nearly all trade tariffs between them after upgrading their free-trade agreement in late January.

During the video conference, Wang reiterated China’s stance on multilateralism and stated China is willing to work with New Zealand, which is hosting this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum summit, to send a signal supporting multilateralism.

While the other members of Five Eyes —the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia — have stepped up their criticisms of Beijing over its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, New Zealand has taken a different approach, and has refused to sign some – but not all – the group’s joint statements on Hong Kong.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has rejected suggestions New Zealand is not taking a strong stance on “incredibly important issues” relating to China and said the country had no intention of abandoning the five-nation alliance.

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“New Zealand and Australia have more in common on international issues than differences,” Zhang said, but New Zealand is balancing its security and economic policies against Beijing with a subtle approach.

Earlier this month, China’s vice-foreign minister Xie Feng held a video talk with Chris Seed, New Zealand’s chief secretary of foreign affairs and trade, on deepening the two countries’ economic cooperation. Xie also called for the two sides to remain “independent” in international affairs.

“The international situation China is facing is not friendly and in the context of the fierce competition between China and the United States, it is understandable that China is more subtle in dealing with the relationship and strengthening of intensive communication with New Zealand, ” Zhang said.

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