Chinese Ambassador says NZ-US statement raised in Nanaia Mahuta meeting after minister skirts questions

China's Ambassador in Wellington says New Zealand's recent joint statement with the United States was raised in a meeting he had with Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Thursday.

Mahuta was repeatedly asked by media on Thursday whether the statement - the subject of fury from the Chinese Foreign Ministry - was discussed during the pair's sit-down. She skirted the questions.

"A range of things were commented on, but not in any particular detail," she said, before being asked again.  

"Not significantly, actually, no…The meeting was so short. It was a meet and greet meeting. It canvased a range of issues in relation to the Pacific, the bilateral relationship, the fact we are recognising 50 years of a relationship with China. New Zealand had a number of firsts, the free trade agreement, things like that." 

She described the meeting as a "very general discussion to the extent that was the first meeting, an opportunity to get to know one another. 

"He signalled a range of things that he is interested in and so did I."

The joint statement was released publicly after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning at the White House. It raised concerns about China's actions in Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and in relation to Beijing's recent security cooperation deal with the Solomon Islands. 

The Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, Wang Xiaolong, says the statement was brought up with Mahuta.

"Met with Hon. Minister Mahuta yesterday. Reiterated China’s position on the recent US-NZ Joint Statement, and more importantly, compared notes on how China and NZ could steer the bilateral relations in the right direction to the benefit of both sides," the diplomat tweeted on Friday.

China made its position on the joint statement very clear publicly on Wednesday night. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was a "smear" and called on the countries "stop interfering in China's internal affairs and stop slandering and discrediting China". 

"We hope New Zealand will adhere to its independent foreign policy and do more to enhance security and mutual trust among regional countries and safeguard regional peace and stability."

It also said New Zealand and the US were hyping up the issue of the security agreement between Beijing and Honiara "out of ulterior motives to create disinformation and attack and discredit China".

New Zealand is one of a number of countries to oppose the deal, with the Government saying the Solomons should have instead looked for security assistance from within the Pacific. 

The joint statement with the US on Wednesday said the two nations "share a concern that the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries".

Wang also tweeted that he discussed with Mahuta "how NZ and China could work together to support common development in Pacific island partners".

"We agreed that it is imperative to keep dialogues going at a time like this," he said.

"Quoting a Pacific leader: China provided much-needed aid to us when no others were. As I elaborated to Minister Mahuta, China will continue to support Pacific island partners, by, among others, enhancing their endogenous capacity for growth.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) readout of the meeting makes no mention of the joint statement being brought up. Instead, it says the meeting "was a useful opportunity to discuss Aotearoa New Zealand’s contemporary relationship with China" as the two countries celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations.

"The Minister emphasised the importance of maintaining an open and constructive dialogue both in areas of cooperation and areas of difference. In this regard, the Minister referred to Aotearoa New Zealand’s values-based foreign policy, which included a strong focus on open democracy, human rights, and international rules and norms."

The pair also "exchanged views on regional partners", including the challenges of climate change and economic resilience facing the Pacific. 

"The Minister took the opportunity to restate Aotearoa New Zealand’s concerns regarding the China-Solomon Islands Security Cooperation Agreement and highlighted that discussion of regional security matters was best undertaken through existing regional institutions."

Concern over China's attempts to grow its influence in the Pacific has been bubbling away for some time now. 

A Defence Assessment released by New Zealand in December reported that China is the globe's "major driver of geopolitical change" and that the country "views an increased presence in the Pacific as part of its natural progression towards its global goals".

The signing of the security deal between China and the Solomons renewed focus on the issue, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has spent the last week visiting a number of Pacific Island nations in an attempt to secure security and economic agreements. But the nations ended up rejecting a region-wide deal. 

Mahuta has come under criticism from the Opposition for not currently being in the Pacific as her Australian counterpart. The minister, however, has said she's in communication with Pacific leaders and will visit the Solomons as soon as schedules allow.

The Government has pointed to the deployment of Defence Force personnel to Honiara after unrest there in November as an example of New Zealand's commitment to the Solomons. Mahuta spoke with the Solomons' Foreign Affairs Minister last week and confirmed an extension to that deployment

Wang Xiaolong, the ambassador, earlier this week warned New Zealand against joining "exclusive circles" and said New Zealand's brand as a "green, clean, open, friendly country" could not be "taken for granted". Some have interpreted that as a veiled threat about trade access.