Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on New Zealand on Monday to ensure a fair investment environment, as he meet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern whose country has rejected a bid by Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build a 5G mobile network.
Ardern, on a one-day visit to China, said before meeting Li that she hoped to have a dialogue with Beijing about New Zealand’s intelligence agency’s decision to reject the bid.
Ties with China have been tense under Ardern’s government which has openly raised concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
China postponed a major tourism campaign in New Zealand days before its launch in February.
“At present, China-New Zealand ties overall are developing in a stable manner,” Li told Ardern at the start of their meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the people, noting New Zealand’s desire for good relations.
“China also places a high importance on relations with New Zealand and is willing to,” he said.
“And we hope that we can aspire to the greatest common denominator regarding each others’ interests and that when each sides businesses invest in each other’s businesses, they can enjoy a fair, transparent, convenient environment.”
Ardern told Li that she wanted to underline the importance her country placed on its relationship with China. In 2008, New Zealand became the first Western country to sign a free trade agreement with China.
“It is one of our most important and far reaching relationships,” she added. “We already enjoy a relationship with an impressive and innovative history and a very impressive future.”
Talking to reporters before the Li meeting, Ardern said she would set out the process New Zealand followed in the Huawei decision, and point out that there had been no political or diplomatic influence in the matter.
“This is an opportunity to have a dialogue to talk about the way the process has been undertaken to date and where it currently stands,” she said, adding that some media reports that suggest Huawei is banned in New Zealand are not true.
The interview with reporters was streamed on New Zealand’s 1NEWS.
Ardern has acknowledged there were complexities in the relationship with China, but has dismissed concerns of a rift with New Zealand’s largest trading partner.
The trip has been trimmed down to a one-day visit in the wake of an attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 that killed 50 people.
Ardern said she also anticipated talks around an upgrade to the free trade agreement which has helped the Asian giant grow to become New Zealand’s largest goods export partner.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called in a letter to Arden last week for her to publicly express concern about the situation in China’s far Western region of Xinjiang when she meets Chinese leaders.
China has faced growing international opprobrium over a controversial de-radicalization program in the heavily Muslim populated Xinjiang, where critics say China is running internment camps.
China strongly denies this and calls them vocational training centers, defending its need to de-radicalize a part of the country where the government has blamed Islamist extremists and separatists for multiple attacks in which hundreds have died in recent years.
Ardern said New Zealand has raised the issue of Uighur Muslims in the past but did not specify if it would be discussed in the meetings on Monday.
“Human rights issues are things that New Zealand routinely raises in our bilaterals with China,” she said.