New Zealand’s prime minister has taken the unusual step of fact-checking reports about her country’s relationship with China, following months of growing tension between the two nations.
Jacinda Ardern opened her weekly media briefing with a statement on China, using it to explain the context of the relationship “and also to correct some of the inaccuracies that I have heard”.
Last year New Zealand temporarily banned Chinese telco Huawei from participating in the country’s nationwide 5G rollout, citing security concerns.
Since then a slew of smaller tensions have arisen between the two countries, prompting opposition leader Simon Bridges to claim Ardern was overseeing “steadily deteriorating relations” with the country’s largest trading partner.
Ardern on Monday devoted six minutes of her news conference to the “robust and mature relationship” between China and New Zealand, flagging co-operation on climate change, NZ$28bn (£15bn) of trade and “strong science, research … and cultural, people-to-people connections” as evidence that ties remained intact.
Ardern debunked a recent domestic news story that claimed five government MPs were having their visas held up as “completely incorrect”, saying no government ministers were waiting on visas or letters of invitation from China.
Other news reports suggesting New Zealand exports were being held up at the Chinese border “don’t reflect the facts on the ground”, Ardern said.
Ardern went on to say that reports Beijing was warning Chinese visitors away from New Zealand were wrong, and the facts showed Chinese visitors to New Zealand increased 7.3% in 2018, and their spending dollars were up 14%.
“New Zealand and China have differences of views on some issues, as we do with any other country,” Ardern said. “However this is a robust and mature relationship, we manage these differences together in a mutually respectful way.”
The prime minister also made a nod to the plight of China scholar Anne-Marie Brady, who says she has been the victim of a state-orchestrated harassment campaign by China and accused New Zealand’s government of not doing enough to protect her and her family.
“This is a government which will apply the rule of law scrupulously, and even more so in addressing matters that affect the security and wellbeing of New Zealanders,” Ardern said.
Ardern’s strong address come after months of escalating tensions between New Zealand and China, including the cancellation of a joint tourism agreement, a postponed visit by Ardern to Beijing, an advertising blitz by Huawei which ran in the country’s largest newspapers, and the Pacific “reset” – New Zealand’s strengthening of ties in the Pacific region to counter growing Chinese influence.
China experts say the relationship between the two countries is “bumpier” than it has been in a long time, but no more so than China’s relations with other western democracies such as the US, UK and Australia.