Jacinda Ardern has spoken with Xi Jinping about cooperation between New Zealand and China, while also raising areas of tension and warning that international norms that had benefited the two countries were “being tested”.
The New Zealand prime minister and the Chinese president met for about 50 minutes – running over the scheduled half hour – on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Bangkok. It was their first in-person meeting since 2019.
A New Zealand government statement said Ardern had spoken of “significant areas of bilateral cooperation including trade, agriculture, climate change and the environment” and “the strength of our bilateral connections, and of the bilateral trade relationship, which provides significant benefit to both sides”.
China is New Zealand’s largest trade partner, accounting for about a third of its exports. At the close of 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said two-way goods and services trade totalled NZ$37.7bn, up 20% from the year before, and that the Chinese market made up 23% of New Zealand’s total trade.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok after the meeting, Ardern said: “I’ve tried to hone in on those areas where I do think that there is potential for us to work together.
“Climate change is an obvious one, it’s a number one priority for our region,” she told New Zealand news outlet Stuff.
Ardern said the pair had devoted much of their discussion to regional security issues, saying North Korea’s recent missile launch was “a step up in escalation”. “‘We’re obviously at an inflection point in the region,” she said. “It’s in no one’s interest for us to see a loss of peace and stability in the region, and I’d say that’s a shared view. That is where there is consensus.”
According to the government statement, the prime minister also “recorded New Zealand’s concerns regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and in more recent times, the Taiwan strait” and “encouraged China to use its influence and access to help address regional and international security challenges such as the DPRK and Ukraine”.
New Zealand has maintained relatively cordial relations with China over the past four years, even as neighbouring Australia’s relationship has deteriorated. Those relations have been strained, at times, by Beijing’s increasingly muscular presence in the Pacific and its efforts to build security pacts with a series of Pacific countries.
“Noting New Zealand’s interest in peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, the prime minister acknowledged China’s longstanding relationships in the Pacific, but encouraged that where issues or cooperation impacted the wider Pacific region, engagement with regional architecture such as the Pacific Islands Forum was key,” the statement said.
In translated opening remarks for the meeting, Xi said: “You have said on multiple occasions that New Zealand is committed to an independent foreign policy and that China-New Zealand relations are one of the most important pairs of bilateral relationships involving New Zealand. And that the two sides need to conduct cooperation in areas of converging interests. I highly appreciate that.”
He said the partnership had been mutually beneficial and should be taken “to a higher level”.
Ardern said in her opening remarks that while the countries had different political systems and views, they had both benefited from regional stability and security, and that international law and norms had served the region well. “But they are being tested now,” she said.
Ardern declined to comment on what Xi had said during the meeting. “I’m very cautious not to ever speak on behalf of another leader,” she said.
On Thursday, Xi in front of G20 cameras confronted the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, over the “leaking” of details of their meeting, saying it was “not appropriate” for details of a previous conversation between the two leaders. Trudeau replied: “In Canada, we believe in free and open and frank dialogue and that is what we will continue to have. We will continue to look to work constructively together but there will be things we will disagree on.”
Canadian government sources briefed that during a previous conversation on the margins of the G20 summit, Trudeau had raised “serious concerns” with Xi over China’s increasingly aggressive “interference activities”.