Sir John Key tells Australian media China not the aggressor, New Zealand must be cautious with words

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key has spoken to two Australian newspapers about how he doesn't see China as "the aggressor" and New Zealand needs to "think very, very cautiously" about what it says about the Asian behemoth.

Both articles featuring Sir John speaking in Auckland were published on Wednesday. 

The Australian's piece was written by the publication's associate editor, who the article says visited Aotearoa as a guest of ANZ New Zealand, which Sir John chairs. The other interview - which took place at ANZ's Auckland headquarters - featured as part of a business column in the Australian Financial Review's (AFR).

The Australian quotes Sir John as saying he doesn't view China "as the aggressor that everybody else sees" and that the country's recent moves in the Pacific are more "nuanced" than others have suggested.

Beijing's cooperation deal with the Solomon Islands - a draft of which showed the potential for a Chinese naval base to be established - and attempts to score agreements with Pacific Island nations concerned Western countries.

It's reported Sir John doesn't believe the issues that the West has with China are particularly new, but that anti-China views have hardened since former US President Donald Trump launched his trade war with Beijing. 

"It's not a matter of being blind to all the issues," Sir John is reported as saying. "But in a world where the economic momentum and mass of China is so great … you can't ignore the fact that China is intent on developing its own economy and lifting millions out of poverty."

The AFR reports that Sir John worries New Zealand's massive trading relationship with China could be threatened if it is too critical of Beijing. China is New Zealand's largest trade partner, with two-way trade worth in excess of $30 billion.

"I think that we should think very, very cautiously about what we say and how we say it," the former Prime Minister is quoted as saying. "I think that we were quite capable of making our point – we just don't have to do it with incredibly inflammatory language."

New Zealand has condemned China over a number of matters, including its human rights abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, anti-democratic actions in Hong Kong, and intimidatory behaviour in the South China Sea.

But Wellington has taken a more cautious approach than others, like Canberra. Australian exporters were slapped with trade tariffs by China in 2020 after the government called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Since then, the two countries have frequently found themselves in a war of words over issues.

Sir John Key met with Xi Jinping on a personal visit to China in 2019.
Sir John Key met with Xi Jinping on a personal visit to China in 2019. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The AFR reported Sir John's perspective as being informed by a comment Chinese President Xi Jinping made to him during a personal visit to China in 2019. The former Kiwi PM said Xi envisioned China in the future as "kind of a Singapore", where technology is a critical means to improving the economy and lifting people out of poverty.

Sir John's view that New Zealand should work with China and not against it is well-known. 

He's done a number of interviews in recent years where he's stressed how reliant the New Zealand economy is on trading with Beijing, including as recently as last month when he called US Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan "reckless"

New Zealand's trade with China soared while Sir John was Prime Minister. The New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement was agreed to just prior to Sir John's National party taking power in 2008, but the party worked to upgrade it throughout its time in office. National ministers made a large number of trips to China during their tenure.

Since stepping down as Prime Minister, Sir John also made his personal trip to China to meet with Xi. The former Prime Minister later told RNZ the Chinese President considers him a friend and sends him Christmas cards.

Last week, National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee, who was a top minister in the Key Government, was labeled "naive" for his response to a United Nations report that found potential crimes against humanity could be happening in China's Xinjiang province.

Speaking to reporters about the findings, Brownlee said what was "most poignant for me" was how the report recognised China has been trying to prevent terrorist activity. The report said "serious human rights violations" have been committed in Xinjiang in the context of the Chinese Government imposing counter-terrorism strategies. 

A Uyghur Muslim in New Zealand told Newshub: "He has no idea how evil these people are plus like, what their real agenda is. That is very very sad, and standing on the wrong side of history."

Analysts have also blasted Brownlee's comments as "ridiculous" and at odds with previous remarks, such as when he expressed concerns about activities in Xinjiang last April

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta released a statement expressing deep concern at the report.

“We are particularly concerned about the report’s conclusions regarding arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forced medical treatment, widespread surveillance, violations of reproductive rights, restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, and forced labour."