US Ambassador warns NZ not to trust China

The United States Ambassador to New Zealand says we should be wary of China's growing influence here.

New Zealand is a small country caught in a gravitational pull between the world's two superpowers, China and the United States, both of which have a strong influence over the Government's foreign policy approach.

US Ambassador Scott Brown believes New Zealand should look to the US as a more trusted ally than China. He answered questions from Kiwis on RadioLIVE on Wednesday morning, where he defended the United States' history of perceived international meddling.

"I believe we're a country for good," Mr Brown said. "We're not taking people's land - we are usually going in because there are issues around the world and that's why we still have troops in Germany and obviously in South Korea."

He was responding to a Kiwi who called the radio station to ask why New Zealanders should trust the United States - "with a history of interfering in other countries' regimes" - over China.

"Have we made mistakes? Of course, but I think every country makes mistakes," the Ambassador retorted.

"We've been here since the Treaty of Waitangi signing, and we were here during World War II when New Zealanders were fearful that the Japanese were going to be here."

The difference between the US and China is "we have freedom and democracy," the Ambassador claimed.

"Kiwis and the US may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day those shared common values that we've had forever stand strong," he said. "When we don't agree, at the end of the day we're still going to grab a beer and a pizza and talk about it."

He reflected on recent tension between China and New Zealand, sparked by the Defence Force explicitly naming China as a threat before spending $2.3 billion on anti-submarine aircraft.

In response, China lodged "stern representations with New Zealand".

"If you disagree with China, especially with their new policies, as they did when you guys issued your new defence strategy paper, they said 'Listen, you've got to change your words'," Mr Brown said.

The New Zealand Government stood by the words used to describe China's presence and said it would not be correcting any "wrong words."

"New Zealand is a sovereign nation and whether the United States was telling us to do that or China or any other country, it comes down to our right to see things as we see it in a very responsible way," Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said at the time.

Ambassador Brown credited Mr Peters for standing up to China. He said China is "not an enemy, they're a competitor, and they've got to start playing by the rules".

"I believe [the United States] play by the rules and so does New Zealand."

US President Donald Trump's escalating trade war with China reached new heights in September when he imposed US$200 billion (NZ$300 billion) worth of new tariffs on Chinese imports.

As an employee of the Trump administration, Mr Brown has some incentive to encourage other nations to be suspicious or distrustful of China.

Others who have warned about Chinese influence in New Zealand include University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

During his RadioLIVE stint Mr Brown also lauded the "great relationship" between New Zealand and the US, referencing the Australian and New Zealand firefighters that travelled to California in August to help fight wildfires.

He went on to criticise China for its claims to the South China Sea. The area, through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, is contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

"That's why we are traversing through with our navy those areas to make sure that they stay free and open so that other countries like New Zealand and Australia don't have to pay a toll the next time they want to trade," Mr Brown said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doubled down on New Zealand's "independent foreign policy" on Tuesday, telling The AM Show New Zealand has "an independent foreign policy and we always will".