Nanaia Mahuta likens New Zealand-China relationship to 'dragon and taniwha', who 'cannot and will not' always agree

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has likened the New Zealand-China relationship to a "dragon and taniwha", who "cannot and will not" always agree. 

In a speech to the NZ China Council on Monday, her second major speech since taking on the foreign affairs portfolio, Mahuta outlined her view of New Zealand's "contemporary relationship" going forward with its largest trading partner. 

She touched on the positives of the relationship, such as the upgrade to the NZ-China free trade agreement in January, as well as a shared commitment to tackle the challenges imposed by COVID-19 and climate change. 

But Mahuta also asserted New Zealand's independent foreign policy approach, by expressing concern about China's influence in the Pacific, its treatment of minority groups, and outlining plans to expand reliance beyond China on trade. 

"Today we acknowledge the interests we share. Equally, we have become more alert to the values that differentiate us. Let me liken this perspective to the Dragon and the Taniwha," Mahuta said in her speech. 

"I see the Taniwha and the Dragon as symbols of the strength of our particular customs, traditions and values, that aren't always the same, but need to be maintained and respected. And on that virtue we have together developed the mature relationship we have today."

Mahuta touched on China's assertiveness in the Pacific. She said it is a "statement of the obvious" that China's actions are "having ever more impact" on New Zealand's regional interests - a nod that's been described as the Pacific's "debt trap". 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave a speech to the NZ China Council in Wellington.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave a speech to the NZ China Council in Wellington. Photo credit: Newshub

According to the Lowy Institute, China made official loan commitments totalling US$6 billion between 2011 and 2018 in the Pacific, and is the single largest creditor in Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu.  

"China can play a role in the long-term economic recovery of the region but there is a substantial difference between financing loans and contributing to greater ODA [official development assistance] investment, in particular to the Pacific," Mahuta said. 

"We must move towards a more sustainable Pacific that respects Pacific sovereignties, and builds on Pacific peoples' own capabilities, towards long-term resilience."

She told reporters: "It's no secret that there's a significant level of vulnerability across the Pacific and the way in which New Zealand invests in the Pacific through its aid programme is by way of grants, not loans, and we really need to think about that."

'Cannot, and will not, agree'

While Mahuta consistently described the NZ-China relationship as "mature" and emphasised the need for respect, she also delved into some of the uncomfortable human rights issues raised by the global community. 

It's estimated more than a million Uighurs - a mostly Muslim Turkic minority group that number about 11 million in China's Xinjiang region - have been detained in camps, which have been widely condemned as akin to prisons. 

The BBC has gathered testimonies from women who spent time in the camps, detailing allegations of gang rape and sexual abuse. A recent Stuff Circuit investigation spoke to Kiwi Uighurs too afraid to contact their families for fear of retribution from China. 

Last month New Zealand joined its Five Eyes partners - the US, UK, Canada and Australia - in supporting sanctions on Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province. 

New Zealand has also raised concerns about Hong Kong and what's been described as the slow eradication of democracy in the island region. The Chinese Embassy urged New Zealand last year to "stop interfering" in Hong Kong affairs

"Different perspectives can be positive, and underpin cultural exchange and learning, but some differences challenge New Zealand's interests and values. There are some things on which New Zealand and China do not, cannot, and will not, agree," Mahuta said. 

"It is important to acknowledge this, and to stay true to ourselves, as we seek to manage our disagreements mindful that tikanga underpinning how we relate to each other must be respected."

Where there is "tension between the Dragon and the Taniwha", Mahuta said New Zealand will take a "consistent and predictable" approach, through diplomacy. 

"Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country's actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights," she said. 

"Sometimes we will therefore find it necessary to speak out publicly on issues, like we have on developments in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and cyber incidents."

Mahuta also made it clear in her speech that the Government intends to pivot some of New Zealand's trade reliance on China to other countries. 

China is currently New Zealand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade including exports and imports of goods and services exceeding NZ$33 billion.

"It is prudent not to put all eggs into a single basket," Mahuta said. "The New Zealand Government will continue to work with business to pursue a range of trade opportunities."