Xi Jinping has praised the “great importance” of China’s relationship with its “friend and partner” New Zealand, as Chris Hipkins visits Beijing to promote trade amid growing geopolitical tensions.
Speaking after the two leaders met in the Chinese capital on Tuesday evening, Xi told reporters through an interpreter: “I myself [am] attaching great importance to our relations with New Zealand,” and “China always views New Zealand as a friend and a partner”.
“Your visit this time is very meaningful,” Xi said, addressing Hipkins. “The international community, especially countries in our region, have been following your visit very closely.
“After taking office as prime minister, you have stated multiple times that you value China-New Zealand relations and will continue to strengthen cooperation with China.”
His remarks were reported by the New Zealand Herald and Stuff, two New Zealand media outlets that accompanied Hipkins’ delegation.
Hipkins said in a written statement after the meeting: “New Zealand’s relationship with China is one of our most significant and wide-ranging.”
He said the pair had discussed trade, support for “the international rules-based order” and the war in Ukraine. “We also engaged on areas where our cultures and political systems differ, and I reiterated we will always advocate for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand’s independent foreign policy or interests and values, in a respectful but consistent way,” he said.
New Zealand has been attempting to walk a delicate tightrope with China – making critical statements on individual human rights and foreign policy issues, while maintaining a close trade relationship with its largest export market. It has been more cautious in criticism of China than its western allies, but increasingly fraught geopolitical conflicts – over the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the invasion of Ukraine and militarisation of the Pacific – have made maintaining that position challenging.
Hipkins met Xi as he toured China with a large delegation of New Zealand business leaders, aiming to promote export industries. However, New Zealand’s government and exporters are increasingly aware of the vulnerability presented by over-reliance on China for trade.
China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, but New Zealand has observed how its neighbouring ally, Australia, has had major industries hit by punishing trade tariffs from Beijing after more outspoken comments on Chinese politics and foreign policy. Earlier in June, New Zealand signed a joint statement with western allies against trade-related economic coercion, and the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, has previously urged exporters to diversify to protect themselves against a potential “storm” of anger from Beijing.
The percentage of New Zealand’s goods exports going to China dropped to 29% in the year to April – down from 31% in 2022, and the first time since 2015 that the share of exports to China has fallen.
Mathew Talbot, the general manager for Alliance, one of New Zealand’s largest beef and lamb exporters, said: “The heightened implication of the geopolitical landscape is huge. Building of north Asia [markets] and the building of south-east Asia is really, really crucial because it de-risks that dependency.”
While New Zealand has maintained warmer relations with Beijing than many of its western allies, it has also faced often-tense exchanges over human rights issues and concerns about the militarisation of the Indo-Pacific. As Hipkins prepared for his meeting with Xi, news broke of a combative meeting between Mahuta and her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, after New Zealand criticised China’s security negotiations in the Pacific.
A report by the newspaper the Australian earlier in the week said Mahuta received an “epic haranguing” and an “almighty dressing down” at a meeting in March after the former prime minister Jacinda Ardern had made strong comments criticising a proposed security pact between China and Solomon Islands.
Mahuta said on Tuesday she had a “very robust” discussion with Qin.
“I would say that China is very assertive in the way that it conveys its interests,” Mahuta told reporters. “The nature of a mature relationship is we don’t have to recoil from saying the things that need to be said.”
Asked to comment on the reports from Beijing, Hipkins said the meeting between the foreign ministers had been constructive, and that “constructive meetings don’t always involve unanimous agreement”.
Reuters contributed to this report.