New Zealand PM 'Looks Forward' to Visiting China When Zero-COVID Restrictions Ease

New Zealand PM 'Looks Forward' to Visiting China When Zero-COVID Restrictions Ease
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shake hands before the meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 1, 2019. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool/Getty Images)
Rebecca Zhu

One day after the final stage of New Zealand’s border reopening was completed, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed her willingness to lead a business delegation to China to strengthen in-person connections.

“As we mark 50 years of diplomatic relations, we look forward to the return of in-person ministerial visits,” Ardern told the China Business Summit in a speech on Aug. 1. “On this, a few plans are afoot. I know there have been indications our foreign ministers will exchange visits when conditions allow.”
Many cities around China remain under a lockdown or undergo sporadic lockdowns due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) zero-COVID policy, making a foreign diplomatic trip to Beijing unlikely.

But if COVID-19 restrictions in China ease, Ardern wants to “seize new opportunities” for dialogue on issues such as climate change and deepen cultural exchanges to support the New Zealand-China trade and economic relationship.

The prime minister also wanted to build on her last trip to Beijing in 2019, which had been shortened due to the Christchurch attack.

In the speech, Ardern emphasised that her country’s relationship with Beijing was one of the “most important and complex.”

“There are areas where both sides benefit, such as trade and agriculture.

“There are also areas that matter deeply to New Zealand, and where China and New Zealand’s interests or world view differ,” she said.

Ardern repeated concerns around a variety of issues, including Beijing’s economic coercion, human rights issues, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and growing tensions in the Pacific and the Taiwan Strait, which were previously expressed in various speeches and statements.

However, the prime minister only called for greater diplomacy, dialogue, and de-escalation, while avoiding a call for action.

“Managing the differences in our relationship is not always going to be easy, and there are no guarantees. But as a government, we continue to work hard—through dialogue and diplomacy,” she said.

She added that the New Zealand government had always maintained a “fiercely independent foreign policy” approach to regional and global issues.

Return to Soft Stance

Across 2022, New Zealand made two moves that resulted in immediate rebukes from the CCP—the joint statement with the White House in May and Ardern’s speech at the NATO summit in June, where she criticised Beijing’s human rights abuses and its growing assertiveness.
In response to the joint statement, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said New Zealand should “adhere to its independent foreign policy,” insinuating that its government should further itself from American policy influence.

Since the NATO summit, Ardern’s language has appeared to return to a softer stance towards Beijing.

In a speech to the Lowy Institute in Australia in July, Ardern said it would be “wrong” to position the issues in the Pacific region as one where countries needed to “pick sides” between Beijing and other players.

Chinese state-run media noted the softening language in the Lowy speech, claiming that New Zealand was often pressured by Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to align its comments and stance against the CCP.