China currently 'very happy' with New Zealand - international law expert

An international law expert believes China is "actually very happy" with New Zealand right now despite Parliament agreeing they are "gravely concerned about the severe human rights abuses" in Xinjiang.

A large number of reports have emerged in recent years suggesting the indigenous Uighur population in Xinjiang is subject to torture, brainwashing and sterilisation. Despite China denying the abuses, some countries have declared acts of genocide are occurring.

New Zealand isn't going that far. Instead, MPs on Wednesday debated a motion filed by ACT saying MPs are "gravely concerned about the severe human rights abuses" and calling on the Government to work with its international partners to bring the abuses to an end.

Speaking to Magic Talk on Sunday, Professor of international law at the University of Waikato Alexander Gillespie said "staying the middle ground" over China's actions is more likely to create issues with other countries. 

"If it was just between New Zealand and China, I think matters would calm down, and I think China is actually very happy with New Zealand right now because we're not outspoken and we've made that statement about not letting the Five Eyes govern our relationship. 

"Even though they've took umbrage to what was said, I expect they will be quite happy. But many other countries that are like-minded like us will be quite concerned about what happened."

The New Zealand Parliament's decision not to grapple with the issue of 'genocide' distances it from the United Kingdom and Canada - both of whom have had their Parliaments declare genocide - and the United States, which has had two administrations say crimes against humanity are happening.

"I think our Five Eyes friends are not happy with us," Gillespie adds. 

"The problem is not the New Zealand-China relationship, the problem is the China and the wider world relationship, because if other things happen New Zealand will be expected to weigh in on those debates."

He says an example of this is Australia's deteriorating relationship with the nation. 

"If the situation between Australia and China gets worse - they've got a very bad relationship right now - and Australia will increasingly be looking for New Zealand to step in and say something of support.

"It will be hard for us sometimes to see what happens to Australia and not speak up."

Gillespie says while New Zealand was right to consult experts it's "behind" what other countries are doing. 

"The approach we took to get experts in there before you make such a declaration is the right kinda thing to do, but it's behind what other countries are doing in that other countries have been more forward in saying it is a genocide. 

"We took a step back, didn't say that, but at the same time we didn't put on a mechanism on it to say 'let's review this in six months or 'let's have an alternative way to go forward if there's no progress to be made'."

The full motion Parliament has put forward is:  

"That this House is gravely concerned about the severe human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and that it call on the Government to work with the United Nations, international partners, and to work with all relevant instruments of international law to bring these abuses to an end."

China has consistently denied it is abusing the indigenous people, saying camps in which up to 1 million Uighurs are thought to be imprisoned in are for vocational education and terrorism, not forced labour and torture as reports suggest.