Government House Kaumatua hongis with China Premier Li Qiang at the formal welcome yesterday

It sounded like the best word to describe yesterday’s talks between Chinese Premier Li Qiang and his heavyweight delegation of Ministers and officials and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and New Zealand Ministers and officials was “frank.”

But it was the kind of frankness that friends can indulge in.

It is seven years since a Chinese premier has visited Wellington and a lot has happened in that time, most notably the election of a new government in Wellington which has set about developing a “foreign policy reset.”

Whereas the 2017 visit focussed on trade and particularly the commitment by both China and New Zealand to multilateralism, yesterday’s talks were, by Luxon’s own admission, 50 per cent about differences.

Not all of those differences were complaints from New Zealand.

Though Luxon wouldn’t reveal any details, he confirmed that the Chinese  brought up the prospect of New Zealand joining Pillar Two of AUKUS,  a move that their Ambassador here has made clear China would oppose.

POLITIK China Premier Li Qiang and PM Christopher Luxon at the welcome at Government House yesterday

On some matters he was more conciliatory.

Although Australia and the United States have expressed concerns about China’s activities in the South Pacific, Luxon said he and Li talked about  how China had been a longstanding, development partner for many of the Pacific nations for “many many decades.”

“But we underscored the importance of the centrality of the Pacific Island Leaders Forum (PIF) and the PIF as the key organizing body that actually is about getting Pacific solutions to Pacific challenges,” he said.

“All major powers whether that’s, the US or India, whether it’s Japan, whether it’s the UK or China or others they should be actually be using the centrality of PIF  in order to make their contribution in the region.”

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Luxon said he and Li also talked about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea and New Zealand’s desire to see a de-escalation so there is no miscalculation or accident, that would threaten the peace and stability in the region.

None of that was unusual. Both Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins discussed those issues when meeting Chinese leaders but what was different yesterday was AUKUS.

Interestingly, Defence Minister, Judith Collins, was in the talks with Luxon and the Chinese delegation.

In February the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, warned New Zealand that AUKUS revealed a typical Cold War mentality.

The Chinese Embassy in Wellington joined in bristling at “irresponsible remarks” in the joint New Zealand-Australian statement about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the erosion of religious freedom in Tibet, the snuffing of democratic processes in Hong Kong and threats to Taiwan.

“China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to this. Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other affairs are China’s internal affairs, involve China’s core interests, and do not allow any external force to interfere,” a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Wellington said.

Beijing’s party state media also joined the chorus of warnings, with the China Daily noting Wellington’s stand on AUKUS had changed since “a coalition of right-wing parties” replaced Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government.

The China Daily warned that joining AUKUS “would no doubt cast a shadow on bilateral ties”.

Luxon did raise human rights issues with Li yesterday.

“We stand up for a set of values. We articulate those. That’s what we did today,” he said.

He was not so forthcoming on AUKUS.

“We talked, we canvased AUKUS and, they raised their concerns,” he said.

Luxon argued that such was the strength of the relationship with China that it was possible for the two sides to air their differences without doing any long term harm.

“Our relationship with China is a long standing one,” he said.

“The way that we look at it is that there are areas where we have common interests, and it makes sense for us to continue to develop those.

“There are also areas where we have national interests and that creates differences and disagreements.

“And I think in the context of a mature, longstanding relationship, we should be able to be very direct about those things.

“And that’s what we were able to do in our bilateral today.”

Li seemed to agree.

“Given our different national identities and stages of development it’s natural that we don’t always agree with each other on everything,” he said.

“Differences should not become a chasm that blocks our exchanges and communication.

“Instead, it should be a driving force for us to learn from each other and help each other develop.”

He said  that the development of China and New Zealand meant opportunities, not challenges to each other.

POLITIK New Zealand’s Ambassador to China Grahame Morton with Chinese Embassy Third Secretary Zong Bin at Government House yesterday

China was ready to work with New Zealand to continue to scale up trade, tap into the potential of cooperation in such fields as digital economy, green economy, new energy vehicles and creative industry, and jointly promote regional economic cooperation.
The Chinese Embassy in a statement last night said the  two prime ministers had  agreed that China-New Zealand relations had made satisfactory progress.

“The two sides will continue to view and handle bilateral relations from a strategic height and long-term perspective, expand bilateral trade and investment cooperation, deepen people-to-people and cultural exchanges, jointly safeguard multilateralism and free trade, and promote sustained, sound and stable development of bilateral relations,” the statement said.

The two sides also agreed to launch negotiations on the negative list of trade in services.

China’s official news agency Xinhua said In his meeting with New Zealand’s Governor-General Cindy Kiro, Li said China and New Zealand shared similar development concepts, cultural values and international propositions, adding that the two countries had benefited from each other’s development over the years.

“This visit, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership, is a trip of friendship and cooperation,” said Li.

“China is ready to work with New Zealand to jointly update the comprehensive strategic partnership and bring more benefits to the people of the two countries and the world, he added.

“China is willing to further strengthen the bonds of cooperation with New Zealand, enhance people-to-people exchanges in such areas as education and culture, expand personnel exchanges, and support the people of both countries in creating more stories of friendly interactions.”

China is ready to include New Zealand into China’s unilateral visa-free policy, and hopes that New Zealand will provide more convenience for Chinese citizens to visit New Zealand, he said.

POLITIK understands there is enthusiasm for this within Government but a concern that India might request the same.

“Chinese go home, Indians don’t,” one official told POLITIK.

Li said China would step up its assistance to New Zealand schools wanting to teach Mandarin and would provide 5000 textbooks.

An editorial in the China Daily, which is owned by the Publicity Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, like Li, glossed over the political differences that Luxon talked about.

“With broad common interests and great untapped cooperation potential in sight, the Chinese guest and his New Zealand and Australian hosts seem intent on not allowing their differences on security and geopolitics to get in the way of shoring up their economic and trade relations,” the China Daily said.

“After years of sometimes bitter exchanges, even in the form of trade disruptions, the three parties appear to have concluded that whatever their disagreements, at the end of the day they have to make things work, get along and get down to business.”

POLITIK China’s Commerce Minister Weng Wentao and Trade Minister Todd McClay after signing an agreement to extend the NZ-China Free Trade Agreement to services while China Premier Li Qiang looks on

And Luxon suggested that the relationship on economic matters was much warmer than political.

“We discussed the challenging economic outlook and the regional and international issues that are crucial to New Zealand,” he said.

“China’s views and actions on these matters are important and more rather than less engagement with China is needed on these issues.”

There is, however, one economic issue that Luxon was ducking; whether New Zealand would support China’s application to join the CPTPP.

Then Trade Minister Damien O’Connor “warmly” welcomed Britain’s application to join in January 2021.

But Luxon yesterday would not offer China that sort of support when Li requested it yesterday.

“It’s not something that we lobby for per se.  We don’t do that for any country. It’s about following that process and making sure that they can meet the high standards,” he said.

Luxon yesterday demonstrated some diplomatic agility with the way he fielded questions on contentious issues such as alleged Chinese political interference in New Zealand.

“In the nature of these things, we talk about the areas we cooperate in and that was a good part of the bilateral,” he said.

“But equally, we spent a good amount of time talking about our differences. That was one of the things I addressed.”

That was all he said, which is how the Chinese like it with differences aired in private rather than through what the Embassy has called “megaphone diplomacy.”

Li’s party which includes two other Ministers; Education Minister, Huai Jinpeng  and the powerful Commerce Minister Wang Wentao all move to Auckland today for a range of engagements involving universities, business leaders  and the New Zealand China Council.

These meetings are unlikely to deal with the kind of contentious issues that were discussed yesterday but rather get back to the economic basics of the relationship.