China calls on Australia to 'heed constructive voices from people with vision' after Damien O'Connor's comments

China is calling on Australia to "heed the constructive voices from people with vision" after New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor suggested our trans-Tasman partner practice "more diplomacy" with the Chinese. 

O'Connor this week found himself in "diplomatic doo-doo", as one critic described it, after telling an American television outlet how Australia could develop its relationship with China. While New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with China this week, relations between Australia and the Chinese are at an all-time low. 

"I can't speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships, but clearly if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they too, hopefully, could be in a similar situation," O'Connor said.

The remarks caused an uproar both in Australia and in New Zealand. Academics said they showed Aotearoa's naivety towards China - accused of unfair trade dealings with Australia and human rights abuses domestically - and that O'Connor was the one needing to brush up on his diplomatic skills. 

Zhao Lijian, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson who last year angered Australia with his social media behaviour, has now responded, saying on Friday night (NZT) that he had "noted" O'Connor's remarks. 

He said China's "successful relations" with countries like New Zealand shows that despite nations having differences "in history, tradition, social system and development stage", they "are perfectly capable of managing well the development of bilateral relations, as long as the two sides focus on cooperation and properly address differences under the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit".

The Australian and Chinese relationship "also had its good times," Zhao said.

"We hope the Australian side could heed the constructive voices from people with vision, face up to and reflect upon the crux of the difficulties that China-Australia bilateral relations are in, develop relations with China based on mutual respect and equality, and do more to enhance mutual trust and promote practical cooperation."

Relations between Australia and China soured early in 2020 when Australia called for an inquiry into the origin of COVID-19. Australia has also become increasingly vocal in condemning Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's judicial system and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The relationship was further strained in December when Zhao posted a digitally-altered graphic of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a young Afghan child on Twitter.

China last year added trade strikes of more than $20 billion on Australian exports including barley, wine, cotton, coal and beef. 

Australia's Trade Minister Dan Tehan has tried to get the two countries' relationship back on track, recently writing to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, to start a conversation about the trade issues. He hasn't had a response.

O'Connor told Newshub on Thursday afternoon that he had spoken to Tehan to reiterate that New Zealand doesn't speak for Australia on its relationship with China. 

Tehan later released a statement saying Australia's relationship with China is "based on an assessment of our national interests". He told ABC he had a "good discussion" with O'Connor and respected the New Zealand Trade Minister. 

Newshub asked the Prime Minister's Office on Friday whether O'Connor's comments were appropriate and if she had spoken to the minister about them. There was no reply. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta's office simply said that the Australia-China relationship was a matter for them.

The New Zealand-China relationship has been under the microscope this month after Aotearoa was the only Five Eyes partner not to be party to a joint statement condemning China for its arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Mahuta instead released her own statement. New Zealand has, however, joined statements in the past. 

Aotearoa's relationship with China has had its own speed bumps over the last year. Beijing rebuked New Zealand in July for suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in light of China's decision to pass a controversial national security law for the city.

New Zealand has also called out China's treatment of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region. Ardern raised human rights issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping while in China in 2019 and Aotearoa has also co-signed several statements on the issue, including in October. Last week, there were calls for New Zealand to step up its criticism by declaring the repression of the Uighurs a "genocide".