China state media takes aim at Nanaia Mahuta's suggestion New Zealand could 'mediate Beijing-Canberra talks'

Chinese state media has taken aim at Nanaia Mahuta for suggesting New Zealand could arbitrate a conversation between feuding China and Australia, while also accusing Jacinda Ardern of "arrogance and duplicity".

The Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet, has printed an article by Qian Feng, the director of Tsinghua University's National strategy Institute research Department, about New Zealand's reported willingness to act as a mediator between China and Australia.

Relations between the two countries have spiralled out of control this year, with tensions hitting a peak in December when a senior Chinese official posted on Twitter a digitally-altered graphic of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a young Afghan child. It was a reference to a recent report alleging Australian special forces had killed Afghan citizens. 

The image set off a new war of words between the countries, with Australian PM Scott Morrison demanding an apology and China accusing the nation of trying to divert attention from the military allegations. 

New Zealand expressed its concern directly with China over the image, with Foreign Minister Mahuta saying we don't "support disinformation that has the potential to be inflammatory". 

In an interview with Reuters this week, Mahuta was reported as saying New Zealand "would be willing to help negotiate a truce" between the countries with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) next year providing such a forum. 

"Do I believe that there might [be] an opportunity for New Zealand to create a different environment and have a conversation? Yes, I do," she said.

"And I think hosting APEC might well be the opportunity... but both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye."

In his opinion piece, Qian, however, suggests Wellington cannot act as a mediator between the nations. The article includes an image of someone with a New Zealand flag hat hugging the leg of a Kangaroo. 

"It is hard for New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes alliance, to mediate fairly between Australia, its counterpart in the alliance, and China. Besides, the China-Australia dispute was initiated entirely by Canberra - and therefore Australia takes all the responsibility. Considering this, New Zealand really cannot mediate," Qian writes.

The writer says that with its soldier image, China "stood up for justice and made its position public". 

"New Zealand is not in a position to blame China or to mediate - as Wellington is fundamentally in the same boat with Canberra on this issue," Qian says.

"Moreover, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has publicly voiced support for Australia over the cartoon controversy, showing Western-style arrogance and duplicity."

The article then goes on to list ways it believes Australia has been targeting China before saying that "China is still willing to develop good relations with Australia as long as Canberra changes its ways".

Ardern said earlier in December that our decision to express concern came from a "principled position" and was an action New Zealand would have taken if another jurisdiction acted in a similar way.

"We will speak up on issues that we have concerns about, we will stick to our independent foreign policy, but that doesn't stop us observing what is happening with others."

Mahuta spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on December 10 about the two countries bilateral relationships, described as "one of New Zealand's most important". 

"They agreed it was in very good shape. They also discussed both countries’ COVID-19 pandemic response, and confirmed their commitment to the rules-based multilateral trading system and regional economic integration," a readout of the phone call says. 

A spokesperson confirmed to Newshub that issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong were discussed.

Mahuta isn't the only one suggesting New Zealand could mediate a discussion between China and Australia. University of Waikato Professor of Law Alexander Gillespie wrote a piece for The Conversation in early December making that point. 

"New Zealand is arguably in a prime position to broker a kind of truce. Someone needs to take the initiative. Right now, things are deteriorating, as the trade stand-off with Australia demonstrates," he said. 

Gillespie said New Zealand is attractive to China due to our independent foreign policy and absence of disputes between the countries. 

"New Zealand’s objective should be nothing less than trying to copy the precedents that ended the first Cold War with the Soviet Union. The objective would be a series of interlinked, equitable agreements."

Relations soured earlier this year when Australia called for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19. Our trans-Tasman partner has also been vocal in criticising Beijing for its new national security law in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang. As a result, China has taken a number of significant trade actions, which led Australia to escalate the dispute to the World Trade Organisation.