New Zealand must be 'respectful' of China, even if there are disagreements - Nanaia Mahuta

The Foreign Affairs Minister says New Zealand and China's significant economic ties mean Aotearoa must be "respectful" of the Asian superpower, even if there are areas of disagreement between the two nations. 

Nanaia Mahuta's latest comments come as more overseas commentators accuse Wellington of cosying up to Beijing and undermining its standing within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.

The relationship between New Zealand and China has come under intense scrutiny this week after comments Mahuta made to the NZ China Council about the nations' ties as well as afterwards to journalists about her discomfort expanding the Five Eyes' remit beyond security matters. 

With several of New Zealand's partners taking increasingly aggressive stands against China, there have been calls for Aotearoa to step up its response and join more Five Eyes statements on Beijing's interference in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. That's despite New Zealand joining statements in the past and releasing some independently and with Australia.

China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth $33 billion. It has been suggested Wellington is biting its tongue so not to risk economic retaliation similar to what Australia has seen over the last year.

Appearing on Newshub Nation on Saturday, Mahuta was asked if she is prioritising cash and trade over humanity and ethics. 

"What I'm saying is that New Zealand's relationship with China is significant in terms of exporting, and there are areas that we can't agree on, but we want to be respectful, consistent, and predictable in the way that we treat China," Mahuta told host Tova O'Brien.

"That's going to be really important as, again, we're signalling to businesses you need deeper resilience, broader markets, as we navigate our way through this relationship."

The minister reiterated that comment later in the interview.

"It's important that we continue to act in a way that is respectful, consistent, and predictable, because there are significant relationships between New Zealand businesses and China, but also there's people-to-people relationships."

She raised the "value of diversity" to long-term economic resilience in her Monday speech.

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

Mahuta said sometimes there will be "things on which New Zealand and China do not, cannot, and will not, agree".

"Sometimes we will therefore find it necessary to speak out publicly on issues, like we have on developments in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and cyber incidents," she said. "At times we will do this in association with others that share our views and sometimes we will act alone."

"In each case we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand’s interests." 

New Zealand must be 'respectful' of China, even if there are disagreements - Nanaia Mahuta
Photo credit: Newshub Nation / Getty.

Following that speech and her Five Eyes comments, the likes of former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and UK Conservative Party politician Bob Seely all criticised the New Zealand foreign policy. 

The latest to add their voice to that chorus is Sky News Australia contributor Prue Macsween, who said on Friday night that Ardern's "halo has slipped".

"She is no longer the saint that she portrays herself to be. She's got serious problems. Little ole New Zealand has sold its soul. It wants the China revenue and it is just telling the rest of the Four Eyes family - I am calling it Four Eyes - to go and jump," Macsween said.

In a Friday column for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Michael Shoebridge, the institute's defence, strategy and national security director, said New Zealand won't be able to keep both the Five Eyes and China happy for long.

"New Zealand will find that its policy framework collides with NZ values and interests, even if its purpose is to protect NZ’s China trade," he wrote. "There are also likely to be growing problems in NZ seeking to maintain a very close partnership in the Five Eyes while taking the approach outlined in its foreign minister’s speech."

"Quietly assuring Five Eyes partners that everything is fine, while also assuring Beijing of the same thing, is not sustainable unless China radically changes direction under Xi. As the long-term Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen said, 'You can’t sit on the fence and keep your ear to the ground without horrible things happening.'."

While overseas media has suggested Mahuta's Five Eyes comments mean New Zealand is bowing out of the Five Eyes, both Mahuta and Ardern have confirmed that's not the case.

Newshub also reported on Thursday that during the last conversations Ardern had with the UK's Boris Johnson and Australia's Scott Morrison, when Five Eyes came up, it was raised proactively by Ardern and they didn't suggest a Five Eyes expulsion.

Mahuta, at a press conference alongside her Australian counterpart on Thursday, said she valued the Five Eyes relationship, while Marise Payne said it was up to individual countries to decide how they voice their concerns. 

Some commentators have also taken issue with Mahuta's use of a 'dragon and taniwha' metaphor in her speech to explain the mature and respectful relationship between China and New Zealand.

"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," she said on Monday. "And on that virtue, we have together developed the mature relationship we have today."

Mahuta was asked about the media reaction on Saturday.

"I think the overreaction to the dragon and taniwha analogy or metaphor, I think became kind of reflective of, I guess, how polarised the view is about where New Zealand sees its relationship," she said. "We treat every relationship that we have with every country, big or small, in a respectful way, and we do not take it for granted."

The minister said she believes the reaction shows there isn't an acceptance "that New Zealand, in how it sees itself, has matured". 

"The metaphor of a dragon and a taniwha is a sign that we have matured as a country, that when we talk about the treaty in our foreign policy, we're talking about the nature of our democracy, and we're talking about how we can learn from our past to be able to not only contribute to building a better society, but a global community, and what that perspective could add to that kind of conversation."

Despite suggestions otherwise, New Zealand hasn't been reluctant to criticise Beijing in the past.

Mahuta joined her Australian counterpart twice in March to call out Beijing, while New Zealand has been a party to statements read out at the United Nations. 

Ardern in March said Aotearoa would continue to raise concerns with China over its treatment of the Uighur people. 

"We are entirely predictable in the way we're dealing with this issue. When we see a concern that we have, we raise it and we raise it directly."."

On Saturday, Mahuta said she was open to getting advice about potentially labelling the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang a genocide.