Nanaia Mahuta says China's 'very assertive' but she won't call counterpart's engagement 'wolf warrior attack'

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says China is "very assertive" in getting its interests across, but isn't characterising her Chinese counterpart's recent engagement with her as a "wolf warrior attack" as it has been called in Australian media.

The Australian newspaper late on Friday published a report claiming Mahuta had been the subject of a "wolf warrior attack" during a meeting she had with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing earlier this year.

Citing unnamed sources, it claimed Mahuta was "harangued for a whole hour" but she also pushed back against the senior official when he "turned the dial to Wolf Warrior". 

Wolf Warrior refers to a style of assertive, combative diplomacy used by Chinese foreign affairs officials recently, particularly during the pandemic years - though some analysts believe the Asian superpower is now pivoting away from it.

Fronting media on Tuesday morning, Mahuta was asked about the report and whether she got "harangued".

She repeatedly said it was a "robust" conversation.

"I would say that China is very assertive in the way that it conveys its interests," Mahuta said.

She said the robust discussion was a "two-way conversation of making sure that those issues that are serious and important, from a New Zealand perspective, are able to be discussed".

"The fact that we have a mature relationship enables us to have a robust discussion."

During her conversation with Qin, Mahuta said topics raised included Russia and Ukraine, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

She wouldn't characterise Qin's engagement as a "wolf warrior attack" and pointed to the fact that following Mahuta's trip, an invitation was received for the Prime Minister to visit.

The Australian report came ahead of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

Asked if she believed Hipkins would get a similar robust reception when he meets with Xi, Mahuta said: "I think it will be a robust discussion but that's the nature of a mature relationship.

"We don't have to recoil from saying the things that need to be said because they're important in terms of New Zealand's interests.

"The other thing is that we understand that by managing this relationship in a consistent, predictable and respectful way, we're able to have those robust discussions."

Speaking on Monday, Hipkins said the relationship with China was "strong enough that where we do disagree we can share that openly".

"I'm expecting a meeting where we can talk about areas where we have got common interests and where we agree, and where we can make progress moving forward together. 

"Of course, I'm expecting there will be areas that we will have conversations about where there won't be agreement."

National foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee was sceptical about how the meeting between Mahuta and Qin was described in The Australian. 

"I've read the story and I'm not sure that that's the interpretation that should be entirely put on it. I'm sure there was an exchange and it would have been vigorous both ways," Brownlee said.

"The report has come from a third party. The minister herself has not acknowledged that there was any difficulty and I think that's where it sits."

Brownlee didn't think anything should be read into the timing of The Australian report - it was published just days out from the Xi-Hipkins meeting.