New Zealand-China: Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison face tough questions over trans-Tasman relationship and China

By Jane Patterson of RNZ

"Prime Minister, is the reason you're here because New Zealand's soft approach to China is splintering our relationship?"

The question to Scott Morrison from an Australian reporter on arrival in Queenstown cut to the heart of a significant tension - just maybe not how many in New Zealand would frame it.

The delicate balancing act New Zealand is engaged in between its closest partner and ally, and the economic powerhouse of China will be a feature of formal discussions today between Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison.

There was a backlash last year when New Zealand did not join the other Five Eyes members' statement condemning China's approach to Hong Kong.

New Zealand said it was reluctant to expand the Five Eyes' brief beyond intelligence sharing; commentary from within other member countries questioned this country's commitment to the longstanding alliance, suggesting it was foregoing past loyalties for the sake of keeping China happy.

Not so, insists New Zealand, arguing it takes a stand against China when it sees fit, but will do that in a way of its own choosing.

Morrison and Ardern are in Queenstown for the annual trans-Tasman leaders' meeting; the significance is not just diplomatic, but showing off to the world what both countries have achieved in their battle against COVID-19.

At a function for business and community leaders at the Skyline last night, both leaders talked up the success of their campaigns in their opening remarks.

The comments were generally light hearted, but Ardern made a notable remark - while not naming China that is clearly where it was aimed.

"In this increasingly complex geo-strategic environment, family is incredibly important, and Australia, you are our family," Ardern said.

"And so I can't imagine a more important time for us to just continue to build and strengthen those ties."

Back to the question from the Australian reporter - in response, Morrison said this was an annual, regular trip.

"And we work through the issues that are part of that very successful partnership, particularly whether it's the economic partnership or the security partnership."

This was "another opportunity to reinforce our commitment to the security interests of the region and security interests of our bilateral partnership and to advance our economic co-operation for our mutual prosperity and for jobs", he said.

Ardern talked about how regularly they had been in contact over the past year, through calls and texts; often, she thought, having "more contact than I perhaps had with my mother during that time".

However, there have been some major bumps along the way.

There have been times when Ardern has been scathing about Australia and Morrison: commenting publicly about the "corrosive" 501 deportation policy and the position in which New Zealand was left when Australia stripped terror suspect Suhayra Aden of her citizenship.

However, the private lines of communications are obviously open and there was plenty of warmth on display between the two leaders yesterday.

All eyes today will be on how both leaders position themselves on China in the bi-lateral context, and how far they will go when talking about the impact on the relationship.