Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that differences between New Zealand and China are becoming harder to reconcile as Beijing’s role in the world grows and changes, reports Reuters.
In a speech at the China Business Summit in Auckland, Ardern said there are things on which China and New Zealand “do not, cannot, and will not agree”, but added these differences need not define their relationship.
“The differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile,” Ardern said.
“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 added.
The comments come as New Zealand faces pressure from some elements among Western allies over its reluctance to use the anglophone Five Eyes intelligence and security alliance, which includes Australia, Britain, Canada and the US, to criticise Beijing.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said last month she was uncomfortable expanding the role of Five Eyes.
Beijing has accused the Five Eyes of ganging up on China by issuing statements on Hong Kong and the treatment of ethnic Muslim Uihgurs in Xinjiang.
Ardern said New Zealand would continue to speak about these issues individually as well as through its partners. Managing the relationship with China is not always going to be easy and “there can be no guarantees”, she added.
China is engaged in a diplomatic row with Australia and has imposed trade restrictions after Canberra lobbied for an international inquiry into the source of the coronavirus. Beijing denies the curbs are reprisals, saying reduced imports of Australian products are the result of buyers’ own decisions.
Ardern said how China treats its partners is important.
“We hope that China too sees it in its own core interests to act in the world in ways that are consistent with its responsibilities as a growing power, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council,” she added.
Wellington has been accused of becoming “too cosy” with Beijing by its allies.
Under a deal signed in January, China is to open up sectors such as aviation, education and finance. In exchange, New Zealand will increase visa quotas for Chinese language teachers and tour guides.
New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a free trade agreement with China in 2008, and has long been touted by Beijing as an exemplar of Western engagement.
China is now New Zealand’s largest trading partner, with annual two-way trade of over US$21.58 billion.