New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday said her country’s differences with top trading partner China were becoming “harder to reconcile”, amid divisions between Wellington and its Western allies over how to manage relations with Beijing.
Speaking at the fourth China Business Summit in Auckland, Ardern said that while the two countries’ differences should not define their relationship, their areas of disagreement were “part and parcel of New Zealand staying true to who we are as a nation”.
“It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that 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,” Ardern said at the event for political leaders, academics and industry players.
“This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo-Pacific region, but also in Europe and other regions, are grappling with,” she said.
Ardern said New Zealand, which sends nearly one-third of exports to China, had to acknowledge there were issues on which the countries “do not, cannot, and will not agree”.
“This need not derail our relationship, it is simply a reality,” she said.
New Zealand would stick to an independent, “principles-based approach” to foreign policy informed by the country’s interests and values, Ardern said.
The New Zealand leader’s remarks follow recent pressure from some of its allies to embrace the “Five Eyes” partnership’s expanding remit from an intelligence-sharing alliance to a forum for publicly challenging China.
Wellington opted out of several joint statements issued by the other Five Eyes members on human rights concerns in Xinjiang province – where activists say some 1 million ethnic minority Uygurs are being detained in re-education camps – and declining rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, choosing instead to issue separate expressions of concern.
Beijing has lashed out at the alliance for its comments, saying it is meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Ardern in her speech said New Zealand had chosen to raise issues of concern either by itself with Beijing both privately and publicly, or on other occasions, with its Five Eyes partners, which include the United States and Australia.
“We have shown this quite clearly over the past year by deliberately choosing when we make public statements on issues of concern, and with whom,” she said.
New Zealand’s parliament on Tuesday is set to look at a motion put forward by a minor party to declare the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide.
In later remarks on Monday, Ardern said New Zealand had used the term on three occasions, on Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Cambodia, adding that the country had repeatedly called for “unfettered access” to Xinjiang to assess if the situation there met the same legal definitions.
.“That is not to say there isn’t credible evidence of human rights abuses already, there is,” she said.
In her speech, Ardern also pointed to areas of cooperation with China, including trade and the Covid-19 pandemic, and said she looked forward to talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Apec Summit later this year.