China-Canada dispute: New Zealand's lukewarm response called out

New Zealand's reluctance to publicly back Canada over its dispute with China has raised questions about its commitment to the Five Eyes.  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally called Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in January to discuss the legal treatment and detention of Canadian citizens in China, according to Trudeau's office.

But the New Zealand Government has been notably quiet in its response, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying it was a "consular matter between Canada and China".

"New Zealand and Canada have discussed the detention and legal treatment of Canadian citizens in China, and the need for all countries to respect judicial procedure and rule of law," a spokesperson told CBC News.

Trudeau's phone call to Ardern related to Canada's relationship with China which deteriorated badly at the end of last year after Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei's founder, was detained in Vancouver in December.

Two Canadian men were arrested in China after Meng's arrest in Canada, and Trudeau reached out to several leaders to condemn the retaliation, according to CBC News reporter Evan Dyer who obtained the memorandums.

Australia did not immediately offer support for Canada. But after an open letter was published by more than 30 Australian academics calling for the government to respond, Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed "concern" over the detentions.

Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau at a meeting at the National Cyber Security Centre in London, April 2018.
Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau at a meeting at the National Cyber Security Centre in London, April 2018. Photo credit: Getty

Dyer has speculated the reason New Zealand has been quiet is because of Ardern's commitment to maintaining the China-NZ relationship.

As a close ally of Canada and a member of the Five Eyes group of nations, New Zealand was expected to support Canada in the dispute.

But memorandums prepared for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he made outreach calls to world leaders seeking public statements of support over the dispute suggest New Zealand shied away.

Dyer said documents show Trudeau also reached out to European Council president Donald Tusk in January, and shortly after Tusk tweeted out the European Union's support, calling for the two Canadian men to be released.

"Both Canada and EU stand by the rule of law underpinning the global order. EU calls for the release of the Canadian citizens detained in China."

Germany also publicly expressed support for Canada, with the German Foreign Office saying on Twitter: "We are deeply concerned that the arrests of two Canadians in China may be politically motivated."

Director of strategic assessment firm 36th Parallel Assessments Dr Paul Buchanan warned earlier this year that New Zealand sticking up for Canada over the Huawei clash could result in retaliation from China.

Ever since the New Zealand Defence Force last year explicitly named China as a threat that challenged international governance values and norms with its "alternative model of democracy", speculation grew that relations had soured.

And to make things worse, Ardern's trip to China was put on hold last year, prompting speculation China may have taken offence to the Government Security Communications Bureau (GCSB) warning Spark against using Huawei's 5G equipment.

But Ardern's trip was eventually rescheduled and she met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing earlier this month, with the President offering high praise for New Zealand.

It's not the first time New Zealand has been called out for not standing up for Canada. When it criticised Saudi Arabia last year over its arrest of women's rights activists, New Zealand did not show public support.

Dyer said a Canadian official told him Canada has no desire to publicly criticize or embarrass New Zealand over its lack of response to the China dispute. He said the New Zealand gave advice about how to deal with the Chinese.

New Zealand's relationship with China is unique in that it was the first developed Western nation to sign a free-trade deal with China. It's New Zealand's most significant trading partner, with upwards of $27 billion in two-way trade last year. 


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