Grant Robertson denies New Zealand 'soft touch to China', believes CPTPP request not connected to AUKUS deal

New Zealand's deputy Prime Minister isn't reading anything into the timing of China's request to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has confirmed to Newshub that China formally requested to join the free trade agreement - which involves New Zealand and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations - on Thursday. 

The request, which China has previously foreshadowed, was delivered to New Zealand's Embassy in Beijing and then confirmed in a phone conversation between Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor.

"New Zealand as Depository for the CPTPP has shared China’s Accession Request with other CPTPP Signatories," a MFAT spokesperson said. "The next step in this process is for the CPTPP group as a whole, through Japan as Chair, to determine whether to commence an accession process with China."

That request came on the same day the United States, United Kingdom and Australia announced a new defence and security pact, which will allow the nations to share information on technologies, including military hardware, as they seek to confront challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS, as the tripartite group is known, is being seen as a counter to China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. All three nations over the last year have seen their relations with the superpower diminish. 

While many commentators aren't surprised New Zealand isn't a member of AUKUS considering its focus on nuclear capabilities and Aoteaora's nuclear-free stance, others have suggested it shows New Zealand on the outer amongst its traditional allies. 

There was speculation earlier this year New Zealand's close relationship with China, especially in trade terms, was causing a rift between it and its Five Eyes partners. China has boasted about its friendly relations with Aotearoa. But the New Zealand Government says it continues to have a strong relationship with all its traditional partners.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Grant Robertson was asked on Friday about the timing of China's request. He said he didn't "make anything of it" and didn't believe it was connected to the AUKUS announcement.

He also rejected that New Zealand had received the request as it was a "soft touch to China". 

"No, not at all. I think that is both a mischaracterisation of New Zealand and also probably a lack of appreciation of the place of the CPTPP. It is a trade agreement that many countries around the world are interested in."

New Zealand acts as the "Depository" for the partnership, meaning it is responsible for receiving and circulating any official correspondence relating to it. 

Robertson said New Zealand welcomes any countries wanting to join "a high-functioning trade agreement". 

"It is not just China who has expressed interest in this, other countries have in the past," he said. "This is a very solid regional agreement that New Zealand exporters benefit from and anything we can do to enhance a rules-based trade system around the world, we are always happy to look at."

"Any country wanting to join the CPTPP obviously has to sign up to the rules within it."

Grant Robertson isn't reading anything into the timing.
Grant Robertson isn't reading anything into the timing. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The CPTPP was signed in 2018 in Chile after years of discussions and negotiations. The agreement is a successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with some significant changes. 

As Robertson alluded to, there are a large number of rules members must sign up to. Analysts have already suggested China may face challenges getting approval from other member nations, like Australia which it has an ongoing trade feud with, as well as reconciling its approach to state-owned enterprises with that required by the deal.

The United States was originally slated as a member of the TPP, but pulled out under former US President Donald Trump in 2017.

Current US President Joe Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday morning said there was "a lot of steps" needed before the US would look to join. 

"Obviously, as it relates to China’s interest in joining, we’d leave it to those countries to, certainly, determine," she said. "We’re going to continue to work with other countries in the region on economic partnerships and relationships. And if there’s an opportunity to renegotiate, then that could be a discussion we could be a part of."

The United Kingdom requested to join earlier this year. New Zealand is still trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK, which saw Anne-Marie Trevelyan become Trade Secretary on Thursday. She replaces Liz Truss who has become the country's newest Foreign Secretary.

"Concluding agreement in principle on our FTA remains a shared priority for New Zealand and the UK," MFAT told Newshub on Friday. "We look forward to early engagement with Secretary Trevelyan and taking the final steps to secure a high quality, comprehensive and inclusive agreement as soon as possible."