America has 'candid conversations' with New Zealand about foreign policy, China - new US Ambassador Tom Udall

America has "candid conversations" with New Zealand about foreign policy and China, the new US Ambassador has revealed. 

Tom Udall, President Joe Biden's Democrat pick to replace the Donald Trump-appointed Scott Brown, says the United States understands the "balancing act" New Zealand must play with China. 

"I think this is a step that we take and a balancing act and a role we move down where we can have very good conversations," he told The AM Show on Friday, when asked how the US views New Zealand's relationship with China. 

China is New Zealand's largest trading relationship worth more than $30 billion. New Zealand was the first developed nation to sign a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse in 2008 and it was upgraded earlier this year

But China and New Zealand don't always see eye-to-eye, particularly on human rights. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has raised on several occasions concerns about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang region and the encroachment of democracy in Hong Kong

A statement last month following Ardern's phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping said: "The Prime Minister took the opportunity to reiterate New Zealand's concerns over developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong."

New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group of nations, which also includes Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. In 2018, New Zealand was labelled the "soft underbelly" of the group due to the perception that China has too much influence

New Zealand's reliance on China for trade has led commentators to speculate that we've sold our soul, but Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta urged exporters earlier this year to diversify, fearing a "storm" of anger from China would make us vulnerable

US Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall.
US Ambassador to New Zealand Tom Udall. Photo credit: The AM Show

"Let's never forget - New Zealand is very independent in terms of its foreign policy," Udall, who is understood to be pushing for a trade deal between New Zealand and the US potentially worth $10 billion in each direction, told The AM Show. 

"We appreciate that, we understand that. We have candid conversations with New Zealanders about their foreign policy and where our shared values meet and I think that's the kind of discussion we're going to continue to see."

New Zealand formally established diplomatic relations with China in 1972, which has since grown into a hefty trading relationship. 

The China-US relationship is far more complex. Tensions go back to 1949 when Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong established the People's Republic of China after defeating the US-backed Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, whose troops fled to Taiwan. It set the stage for several decades of limited US-China relations.

It wasn't until 1972 when Republican President Richard Nixon visited China, setting the stage for slowly improved relations. In 1979, Democratic President Jimmy Carter granted China full diplomatic recognition. But relations have been rocky, most recently over Taiwan and Hong Kong, rising trade tensions and human rights issues. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019. Photo credit: Getty Images

"This is obviously a very complicated, complex relationship, and there are adversarial sides, there are competitive sides; the term that's been used a lot by the administration - which I very much believe in - is about competitiveness," Udall said. 

"But then there's a side on the issues and there've been many issues since a Republican President went to China and opened us up to talk with China. It's to say, what can we cooperate on, and what can we work on? And boy, I'll tell you one thing, what we all over the world need to be working on is climate change, because that's an existential crisis. 

"It's especially felt strongly here in the eastern Pacific nations with what's happening with the oceans and that kind of thing."

President Xi recently warned Asia-Pacific nations not to "relapse into the confrontation and division of the Cold War era". It's no secret China-Australia relations have soured ever since Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, which was first reported in China. 

But there are signs of countries committing to work together. 

New Zealand hosted APEC this year, and while its significance was dampened by the fact it had to be held virtually, Ardern secured a joint declaration from leaders who represent 2.9 billion people and 60 percent of world GDP.

It includes commitments to keeping supply chains open, reducing the cost of COVID-19 vaccines, supporting global efforts to share vaccines equitably, and action on climate change.