Auckland: New Zealand’s new foreign minister has said the country could help negotiate a truce between Australia and China with the two nations caught in an escalating trade and diplomatic spat.
Nanaia Mahuta said that hosting the high-profile Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next year presented an opportunity for New Zealand to bring both parties to the table.
“Do I believe there might an opportunity for New Zealand to create a different environment and have a conversation? Yes, I do,” Mahuta said.
“Hosting Apec might well be the opportunity … but both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye.”
The comments were made as members of the global Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China penned an open letter to their foreign ministers urging them to express “full solidarity and support for the Australian people in this challenging time”.
It was signed by members from nine countries including Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, European Parliament, France, Germany, Italy and New Zealand, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The attempts by the Chinese government to threaten, bully and coerce Australia into acquiescing to its political demands are a threat to democratic countries everywhere,” the letter said.
It called on foreign ministers to “stand together with democracies everywhere in ensuring that attempts to single out and bully any one country will not work and will only serve to bind us closer together”.
Relations have deteriorated over new foreign interference and investment laws in Australia, calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and Chinese restrictions on Australian exports.
Tensions worsened last month after a China foreign ministry spokesman posted a digitally manipulated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child. New Zealand raised concerns with China about using the image.
“I don’t think Twitter diplomacy can be achieved when disinformation is promoted through social media,” Mahuta said. “We need to go back to tried and tested diplomacy which is dialogue and ensuring doors are open so people can work through some challenging issues.”
Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, said New Zealand was well placed to try to broker some kind of calm.
“There is no guarantee that getting the two sides to sit down and talk calmly will work,” he said. “It would be a very, very, long road ahead – but it would be heading in a different direction to where we are currently going.”
The first Māori woman to hold the post, Mahuta highlighted the fact that New Zealand’s whakapapa, or kinship connections, go back to the Asia region. “That enables us to navigate our relations with China perhaps a little differently than other countries,” she said.
Mahuta joined counterparts from the Five Eyes intelligence partners – Australia, the UK, Canada and the US – in condemning China for disqualifying legislators in Hong Kong. This angered China, which reacted by warning the western alliance that it could get “poked in the eye”.
Under Jacinda Ardern, whose government won a second term in office in October, New Zealand has criticised China’s lending to small Pacific islands, raised concerns about Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region and backed Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Organization despite a warning from Beijing.
Little known outside New Zealand, Mahuta was a surprise pick as Ardern’s foreign minister in the country’s most diverse cabinet yet. Her moko kauae, or facial tattoo, has attracted much attention.
“Curiosity is the operative word,” she said when asked how people have reacted.