Foreign Minister warns New Zealand could be caught in Australia-China trade war

New Zealand could be swept up in the Australia-China trade war, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta has warned.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In an interview with The Guardian, Mahuta also advised exporters to diversify in the case trade relations with China sour.

“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” Mahuta told The Guardian.

That Australia-China relationship is one Mahuta is concerned about.

She has previously urged New Zealand to diversify its trade arrangements and not put all its eggs all one basket with China.

Her comments to The Guardian are the latest step from Mahuta in weighing in on China issues – and the government in general has been more vocal on the matter this year.

A keynote speech Mahuta made to the New Zealand China Council in April was labelled “unusual” by China expert, University of Canterbury’s Professor Anne-Marie Brady.

“We haven’t seen anything like that before, the closest you can get to it is last year at the New Zealand China Council annual business conference, the prime minister in the midst of a speech all about how wonderful trade is then inserted a paragraph criticising China for its human rights behaviour,” Brady said.

She thought it was a pre-emptive move. “New Zealand is telling China ‘we are going to disagree with you on some points’, and they’re trying to be clear and consistent about that.”

Ardern has recently weighed in on the relationship, too.

In early May she told RNZ that as China’s role in the world grew, the differences between it and New Zealand’s political systems, and respective interests and values, were becoming harder to reconcile.

Mahuta echoed that when on Morning Report she agreed “growingly, it is the case” that China in recent years had been “aggressive, assertive and emboldened”, and asserting challenges to “our part of the world”.

Both Ardern and Mahuta say New Zealand has also raised some issues with China in private.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was asked yesterday about Mahuta’s comments.

“China and New Zealand are each other’s important cooperation partners. The considerable progress in China-New Zealand relations is achieved on the premise that the two sides have long been committed to mutual respect, mutual trust and win-win results,” Lijian said.

“We hope New Zealand can carry forward the spirit of ‘striving to be the first’ and the principle of mutual respect and equal treatment, work with China toward the same direction, make the pie of cooperation bigger, rise above external distractions, and jointly advance China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Ardern was asked today whether there had been any shift in New Zealand’s thinking on China given Mahuta’s comments, but she said there was no change in New Zealand’s position.