'Significant unease' in Australia over New Zealand-China relationship, tensions inflamed by Winston Peters' departure - report

A new report suggests there is "significant unease" in Australia over New Zealand's relations with China, with discord between the trans-Tasman partners "exacerbated" by Winston Peters' departure as Foreign Minister.

Late on Monday night, the Sydney Morning Herald published a report detailing the recent "frostiness" between Australia and New Zealand on foreign policy matters.

"While the leader-to-leader relationship remains warm, there is a growing list of areas where the trans-Tasman relationship is straining," the SMH says.

The report says there is "significant unease" in Australia over New Zealand "positioning on China" with Canberra most recently "put off" in January when Aotearoa was the only member of the Five Eyes not to be a party to a joint statement criticising the arrest of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta instead put out her own statement on that.

"While New Zealand's participation in the intelligence network is not under imminent threat, senior officials within the Australian government have in recent months jokingly referred to the 'Four Eyes' as a putdown to [Jacinda] Ardern's government," the SMH says.

Mahuta also raised eyebrows across the ditch in January after it was reported she offered to negotiate a truce between feuding Australia and China. Meanwhile, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor found himself in "diplomatic doo-doo" last month after he told an American television outlet that Australia could better its relationship with China by being more like New Zealand.

Australian officials, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, "could barely hide their frustration at Mahuta and O'Connor's comments", the SMH says. However, it's said the "rookie ministers" had "been reined in".

"In her first major speech as foreign minister last week, Mahuta called Australia 'our only formal ally and an indispensable partner across the breadth of our international interests'."

The report also says that friction within the Australian-New Zealand relationship has been exacerbated by the departure of Peters, who held the Foreign Minister post between 2017 and 2020, when he was dumped from Parliament. 

"Peters was arguably the biggest friend of Australia inside the government and was a strong supporter of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement," the SMH says. 

The newspaper quotes a "senior Australian official" as saying that "Winston held the show together on foreign policy".

"With Peters gone and Ardern in total command of her government, it is suspected O'Connor and Mahuta were trying to state positions they thought their Prime Minister held."

Following O'Connor's comments, the SMH says "Morrison let Ardern know of his concerns", while the Kiwi Trade Minister phoned his Australian counterpart Dan Tehan. 

"Senior figures in the Morrison government separate Ardern's public criticisms of Australia over deportations and citizenship revocations from the comments from O'Connor and Mahuta on China," the SMH says.

"Ardern's criticisms have always centred on issues affecting New Zealand, while the interventions from her ministers had nothing to do with her country and were deeply unhelpful to Australia."

While New Zealand has been slammed for being too cautious in criticising China, it has, however, hit out at the Middle Kingdom in the past.

Last year, Beijing rebuked New Zealand 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.

Aotearoa also came to bat for Australia in December when a senior Chinese official posted a digitally-altered graphic of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a young Afghan child on Twitter.

New Zealand registered its concern with Chinese authorities over that image.