Politics

MFAT boss defends NZ-China relationship

New Zealand’s top foreign affairs official has defended the state of the country’s relationship with China, saying the failure to secure a prime ministerial visit to Beijing this year is not a sign of weakening ties.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has also shed some light on the state of protracted talks on a free trade upgrade with the Asian superpower, saying a resolution is still some time away despite “solid” progress this year.

The Government has come under pressure over its stance on China, facing calls to speak up on the country’s alleged influence activities in New Zealand while also taking an increasingly hawkish stance in some areas, such as its hard-hitting defence policy statement and the decision to block Huawei from participating in New Zealand’s 5G network.

Some critics suggested Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s failure to visit Beijing in 2018 as she had hoped - attributed by her office to scheduling difficulties - was a result of the altered approach.

However, MFAT chief executive Brook Barrington told MPs on Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Thursday the failure to secure a meeting with President Xi Jinping should not be read as a snub by the Chinese.

“If the Chinese wanted to send a message that they did not want to meet with ministers or the New Zealand Prime Minister, we would be in no doubt about that - it would be unambiguous and it would be clear, and at the moment it is neither of those things, in fact it is to the contrary.

“There are no alarming signals that I’m seeing coming out from either side."

“The Chinese government at the highest level, the Premier [Li Keqiang], has directed his officials to find a date.”

Asked by National’s foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay whether New Zealand was sending its own signals through a lack of high-level visits to China, Barrington said the Government had left Chinese counterparts in no doubt as to the importance of the relationship.

“There are no alarming signals that I’m seeing coming out from either side,” Barrington said.

He dismissed suggestions that a discussion between foreign affairs and defence officials over the wording of the policy statement hinted at wider disagreements, saying there was “wordsmithing” as the document went from a classified version to a public form.

“Where the foreign ministry was was exactly where the defence agencies were: we wanted something ... that was neutral and factual and matter of fact, not polemical, and that’s exactly what we ended up with, and both agencies were committed to that as their objective.”

FTA upgrade 'solid' but some way off

Vangelis Vitalis, MFAT’s deputy secretary for trade and economic issues, also spoke about the state of the FTA upgrade negotiations with China, which first began in 2016.

Vitalis said there had been six rounds of negotiations to date, with the most recent taking place in late November.

“Good progress has been made, solid but not yet in a state that we could conclude.”

There were eight areas which both countries were working on, including technical barriers to trade, competition policy and e-commerce.

There would be an “intersessional” round of talks in January, focusing on some of the specific areas of negotiation, with a full meeting of negotiators likely to take place in April.

“There’s an agreement that we should be able to find a way to conclude this, but we still have a fair amount of work to do between us.”

“There’s an agreement that we should be able to find a way to conclude this, but we still have a fair amount of work to do between us.”

Asked by McClay about the prospects of improvement on dairy access, Vitalis said that was a “very difficult question” given China had never agreed to discuss improvements given the sensitivity of the topic.

While countries like Australia had secured larger quotas into the Chinese market in their free trade deals, those restrictions were permanent, while New Zealand’s safeguards would be lifted by 2024 and provide “free and unrestricted access”.

“The trade-off we had to think about was short-term benefit in terms of an increased volume into the Chinese market but a long-term restraint on our trade, and on that trade-off we’ve concluded that in fact it would be better to go for the free and unrestricted tariff trade after the expiry of our safeguards,” Vitalis said.

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