Chinese leader’s visit coincides with falling trade and rising bilateral tensions


Chinese Premier Li Qiang (left) and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon in Wellington on Thursday, 13 June 2024 (Facebook photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, June 13,2024

The challenge before Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, while welcoming Chinese Premier Li Qiang in Wellington on Thursday, was to ensure that Indo-Pacific regional security did not upstage trade in the bilateral equation.

At the joint conference following his official welcome, Li unwrapped goodwill measures, such as visa-free travel to China for New Zealanders, and bestowed the host country with guest of honour status at the upcoming China International Import Expo in November.

But Luxon did not shy away from raising thorny issues such as the AUKUS security pact, foreign interference, human rights, and regional stability, as part of his diplomatic plain-speak at the closed-door meeting with the Chinese premier, though he was cagey about divulging “everything that happened in a bilateral.”

The two leaders appeared to have “raised a number of concerns and differences” at their face-to-face meeting.

“We canvassed AUKUS and they raised their concerns and we raised a number of concerns and differences that we have as well, that’s the nature of a good long-standing relationship, that we should be able to do that respectfully and predictably,” Luxon said.

Referencing the “cyber-attack on New Zealand’s parliamentary systems,” Luxon added: “We’ve got no tolerance for foreign interference from any country.”

The pair also discussed the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, hot-button issues involving China.

At the joint conference, Li cautioned against differences becoming “a chasm that block exchanges and cooperation between us….”

He stressed the need for “non-interference in internal affairs,” and advocated “equal-footed dialogue and exchanges” between the two governments.

The muted hubris underlying the exchange between the two leaders gave way to diplomatic bonhomie with the signing of “a number of arrangements” between the two governments which “will further support stronger cooperation between New Zealand and China on trade, economic and environment issues.”

Premier Li is the highest ranking Chinese official to visit New Zealand since 2017.

Xi Jinping had visited New Zealand in 2014, which saw the signing of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

While China became New Zealand’s biggest trading partner in 2017, Li’s current visit coincides with a recession in New Zealand.

Trade with China has slowed since signing the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2017.

New Zealand’s primary exports to China, such as dairy, meat and wood products, have fallen from $20.07 billion to $18.34 billion.

This fall in primary goods exports is only partially offset by Chinese tourist arrivals to New Zealand.

Overall trade between the two countries is currently lower than earlier.

When trade with China is not on an upswing, the New Zealand government could well be wading into uncharted waters by contemplating joining AUKUS, which the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, has called a “military alliance.”

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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