Chris Hipkins focuses on trade as he flies to China

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has set off on his biggest overseas mission since he became leader - and it's a high-stakes one.

He's just about to land in China for a week-long trade trip with a plane packed full of Kiwi business leaders.

Among them is Tyrone McAuley from New Zealand video game developer PikPok. 

"The China market is huge. It has been a large market," he said. 

China's regulations have changed recently, making it more difficult.

McAuley has climbed aboard the 757 prime ministerial plane for the trip in an attempt to reopen the revenue door.

"There's a bit more to New Zealand exports than the primary sectors and we do have a lot more to offer than just meat, wool, and all the traditional dairy."

China is New Zealand's largest trading partner.

"Since our free trade agreement with China was signed I think our exports have gone from something like $8 billion to over $40 billion," Hipkins said.

It is large, but not that large. $40 billion is the value of two-way trade with China. New Zealand exports were responsible for just over half last year.

It’s been four years since a New Zealand Prime Minister last visited China.

Since then the US-China tightrope on which we walk has become increasingly difficult to balance upon. It's not been made any easier by US President Joe Biden labelling Chinese President Xi Jinping a dictator.

"It's not language that I would use," Hipkins said. "The system of government that the Chinese people have is a matter for China."

He said he didn't think labels were useful. 

Hipkins may be dodging definitions because China is the highest of stakes.

Asked if foreign policy was his strong suit, the Prime Minister said: "I think like everything when you become Prime Minister if you're not familiar with a topic you have to get up to speed with it."

"Foreign policy is not the area which I've been most immersed in in the time that I've been a minister but I like to think I'm a quick learner."

And is he a diplomatic person? "Mostly."

He'll have to be. Topics on the table couldn't be more tense, like the war in Ukraine. 

"I think China has an ability to potentially have some sway over Russia. If they do, we would certainly encourage them to use that to bring that war to a conclusion."

There are also human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims. The UK and US have labelled it genocide.

Hipkins said he would have an opportunity to speak about human rights in China, but wouldn't foreshadow what he would say.

The new Western military alliance between our closest allies, Australia, the UK, and the US - or AUKUS - is also on China's radar. Beijing has labelled it a path of error and danger.

Hipkins said it's "ultimately about nuclear-powered submarines and that's not something New Zealand is going to be involved in".

But all he really wants to talk about is trade.

"There's not much more bread and butter about trade for a country like New Zealand. We are a trading nation."

Bread and butter is going global, though Hipkins has his eyes on one particular delicacy on his big OE.

"Peking duck," he said. 

Thank the stars he didn't say sausage roll.