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Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta and the Chinese ambassador have offered differing accounts of a meeting and discussion of a Joint Statement with the United States that drew the wrath of Beijing.
Mahuta and Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong met on Thursday. It was the first meeting for the pair since Xiaolong started the role in December.
The meeting came amid a week of heightened geopolitical tension, with China Foreign Minister Wang Yi continuing an eight-stop tour of the Pacific originally intended to drum up support for a wide-ranging regional agreement.
It also included Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's White House visit, after which she and US President Joe Biden issued a Joint Statement that noted New Zealand and the United States' close ties on matters of security and singled out China's recent inroads in the Pacific as concerning.
"We note with concern the security agreement between the People's Republic of China and the Solomon Islands," the declaration read.
"In particular, the United States and New Zealand share a concern that the establishment of a persistent military presence in the Pacific by a state that does not share our values or security interests would fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the region and pose national-security concerns to both our countries," it said.
It also condemned Chinese activities in the South China Sea, human-rights violations in Xinjiang (home to the Uighur), and the "erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong".
After that meeting, China's foreign affairs ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the statement was a "hype-up" and had "ulterior motives to create disinformation and attack and discredit China".
Asked by media on Thursday if that NZ-US statement was talked about during her meeting with the Chinese Ambassador, Mahuta responded: "Oh a range of things were commented on but not in any particular detail."
Asked directly if the statement was brought up, Mahuta said: "Not significantly actually, no."
Asked to elaborate, Mahuta said the meeting was "short, it was a meet and greet meeting, it canvassed a range of issues in relation to the Pacific, the bilateral relationship, the fact that we are recognising 50 years of a relationship with China, that New Zealand had a number of firsts, a Free Trade Agreement, things like that".
An official "read-out" of the meeting published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website also made no mention of the statement being discussed by the two.
However, on Friday morning, Xiaolong wrote a series of tweets about the meeting, directly referring to the statement.
"Reiterated China's position on the recent US-NZ Joint Statement, and more importantly, compared notes on how China and NZ could steer the bilateral relations in the right direction to the benefit of both sides," Xiaolong wrote.
"We also talked about how NZ and China could work together to support common development in Pacific island partners. We agreed that it is imperative to keep dialogues going at a time like this.
"Quoting a Pacific leader: China provided much-needed aid to us when no others were. As I elaborated to Minister Mahuta, China will continue to support Pacific island partners, by, among others, enhancing their endogenous capacity for growth."
Xiaolang has been approached for comment.
International relations expert Geoffrey Miller told the Herald the differing emphasis on that statement reflected the "growing geopolitical tension at the moment".
Miller said New Zealand had previously tended to "hedge" in its international relations, not siding too closely with anyone.
More recently, though, New Zealand had made strong moves towards the West, from its support for the Ukrainian effort against Russia, and now the Joint US Statement this week.
Wang Yi, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister, meets Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama. Photo / Supplied
"That statement was extraordinary. It felt very much like a US statement, and had a big laundry list of items, hot button issues for China from the South Sea to Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
"There is clearly a growing alignment with the West, but it is also a very dangerous moment."
Miller said New Zealand needed to be careful of economic "consequences" from China.
New Zealand was still "incredibly exposed", he said; about 30 per cent of exports are to China and they are mainly food products.
"For the United States, the share is 8.8 per cent and United Kingdom 4.4 per cent."
Australia had a similar proportion to New Zealand, but most of its exports were iron ore and coal and other minerals, which China "desperately needs", he said.
"So this makes New Zealand much more heavily exposed to sanctions and tariffs than those other countries if we go too far."
Miller said the key was to maintain engagement with China.
"And I think that is what was good about [the meeting] yesterday. There is a very Cold War-style feeling at the moment. The only way to avoid that is by talking.
"I would have liked to see Mahuta invite [Foreign Minister] Wong Yi to New Zealand as part of his Pacific tour. That would have been a great invite.
"We need lots of engagement – diplomacy is like justice in that it needs to be seen to be done. That is why Mahuta needs to be out there travelling and given this level of geo-polarisation we need a fulltime foreign minister more than ever."
- by Michael Neilson, NZ Herald