Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on why she cut short her 'important' China trip

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has revealed why she cut down her trip to China to one day despite describing it as "important". 

In her first official visit to China as Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ardern will meet with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Kequiang in Beijing on Monday.

Ardern's visit was intended to be longer with a business focus, but she announced on Monday that the visit would be fleeting as she felt it was important to stay in New Zealand after the March 15 Christchurch terror attack.

"I have cut it back to one day of meetings," she said on Monday, citing her commitments to Christchurch, and explaining how under the circumstances, staying on longer "didn't seem appropriate".

When asked on Thursday why she couldn't be spared in New Zealand for a few more days to commit to the full China trip, Ardern said beyond the first day in Beijing the trip would be business-focussed, and felt it wasn't necessary. 

"We are still very much in an operational response to the terrorist attack and we are still making sure that we have the right care in place for those victims. I just did not feel that I could justify extending beyond the Beijing arm of the trip."

She pointed to Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker who will visit China next month. Ardern said her business dealings would pass to Parker who could make up for the Prime Minister's lost time in Shanghai. 

"Christchurch obviously changed everything but it also still was, I believe, an important trip to make, and our counterparts in China have been incredibly gracious and accommodating and that's why this planned trip will go ahead albeit for a shortened period."

PM Jacinda Ardern with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
PM Jacinda Ardern with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo credit: File

New Zealand-China relationship 

Ardern's trip to China comes amid speculation of soured relations. Her scheduled visit last year was put on hold, prompting speculation China may have taken offence to the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) warning Spark against using Huawei's 5G equipment.

The suspicion was ramped up when Chinese newspaper articles speculated about tensions. An article published in the China People's Daily, considered a mouthpiece for the Chinese state, claimed tourists were turning away from Aotearoa.

Another published in the Global Times, also considered a government mouthpiece, warned New Zealand against the Government's "unethical" behaviour towards Huawei, and said the Government's actions went against New Zealand's interests.

Ardern said she expected to discuss telecommunications regulations with China's leaders, and said she would emphasise that New Zealand's legislation is "deliberately neutral and does not support or discriminate against countries or companies".

"Those are important points that I will take the opportunity to make - that our regulation sits in its process, predominantly at arm's length, and I'll also set out exactly the point in the process where Spark and Huawei currently sit in New Zealand."

Speculation about tensions between China and New Zealand go back to July last year when the New Zealand Defence Force explicitly named China as a threat that challenged international governance values and norms with its "alternative model of democracy".

And in December last year, the GCSB said it had found a link between a long running cyber campaign and the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), which targeted intellectual property of numerous managed service providers - some in New Zealand.

Ardern acknowledged that the GCSB had been part of an "attribution around a cyber-campaign at the end of December", but she said it wasn't just New Zealand and that "we were joined by others affected by cyber-security campaigns in early 2017".

PM Jacinda Ardern will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
PM Jacinda Ardern will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Getty

"That was something the GCSB explicitly attributed and so that's already in the public domain. We've been very clear that foreign interference is an issue that we haven't just individually raised as an issue with single state entities."

Ardern added: "We know that it's not individual state actors alone that we should hold those concerns around - we should have much more broadly facing legislative protections."

The Prime Minister pointed to areas where she said China and New Zealand have mutual interests, such as in cultural and business and tourism links, which she said the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism "really demonstrates".

It was confirmed earlier this month that the campaign launch event at Te Papa in Wellington would go ahead this Saturday after it was postponed in February by China. It had sparked further suspicion of a strained relationship.

"Overall though, this trip really is about deepening our relationship," Ardern said, adding that it will be an opportunity for her, as Prime Minister, to continue to build personal relationships with Chinese leaders, and continue conversations around free trade.

"There are areas that we've worked before and I'm sure there will be areas where we can work together in the future."