China's Premier Li is visiting New Zealand, where security fears vie with trade hopes on the agenda

New Zealand's Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is expected to salute trade links with China in public statements this week.

Updated - June 13, 2024 11:36 am IST

Published - June 13, 2024 09:15 am IST - Wellington

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and China’s Premier Li Qiang attend a welcome ceremony at Government House in Wellington on June 13, 2024.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and China’s Premier Li Qiang attend a welcome ceremony at Government House in Wellington on June 13, 2024. | Photo Credit: AFP

China's Premier Li Qiang arrived in New Zealand on June 13, beginning a rare visit to its closest partner among Western democracies, where a celebration of trade links is expected to vie with concerns about South Pacific security on Wellington's agenda.

China's No. 2 official, Mr. Li is the first Chinese premier to visit New Zealand since a 2017 visit by Li Keqiang. He will also visit Australia and Malaysia, China's Foreign Ministry said this week. The trip coincides with easing tensions between Australia and China that have vexed the relationship in recent years.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is expected to salute trade links with China in public statements this week. China is the South Pacific nation's largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth 36 billion New Zealand dollars ($22 billion). They signed a bilateral free trade agreement in 2008 — China's first with an Organisation for Cooperation and Development nation — and the visit marks the 10th anniversary of a pledge to bolster ties signed in 2014 when China's President Xi Jinping last visited Wellington.

But while Mr. Luxon hailed the visit in remarks to reporters on Monday as presenting renewed opportunities for business, Wellington has long sought to diversify the country's export market away from dependence on China and the visit will not be a simple story of economic success as engagements with New Zealand leaders have sometimes been before.

As China and the U.S. vie for influence in the Pacific, Mr. Luxon spoke ahead of a tour of Niue and Fiji this month of “increasingly choppy geostrategic waters” for the region, although he stopped short of naming China except as one of a list of countries jockeying for sway.

New Zealand has in recent years taken a less assertive line with Beijing on security matters than its Western partners in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership and has sought a consistent foreign policy approach to Beijing that spans political parties and administrations. But Luxon told reporters Monday that there were areas where, in talks with Li, Wellington would “call out our differences and discuss those openly, too.” One point of friction is likely to be New Zealand's contemplation of joining one tranche of the AUKUS security pact among Australia, the United States and Britain.

“We happen to think AUKUS is good from a security point of view, providing security into the Indo-Pacific,” Luxon said, calling it appropriate that New Zealand explores its options under the agreement before deciding whether to participate.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi decried New Zealand and Australia's security concerns in meetings with his New Zealand counterpart during a visit to Wellington in March.

“They're real,” Luxon said of regional threats.

On Thursday, more than 100 people held banners and Chinese and New Zealand flags aloft as they lined a side street near the airport in chilly, overcast conditions to watch Li's Air China flight arrive — an unusual sight in the capital, Wellington, population 215,000, which is absent from many international air routes.

The normally sleepy beachside suburb of Lyall Bay had a bolstered presence of law enforcement officers. As Mr. Li's motorcade emerged from the airport, drumming, chanting and singing from those assembled greeted the leader, prompting questions from bemused retail workers arriving to open nearby stores.

Mr. Li on Saturday will head to Australia's capital, where Beijing's relations in recent years have not been as smooth.

His visit to Canberra caps two years of efforts to rebuild China-Australia relations after a period of intense hostility and celebrates what both sides hope is a sustainable return to normalcy in ties, despite their differences on regional security and human rights.

His visit, the first by a Chinese premier in seven years, follows Albanese's trip to Beijing last November and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip to Australia and New Zealand in March. China has been steadily rolling back tariffs and other restrictions it placed on imports from Australia as relations soured in 2020.

China is opposed to Australia's plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with assistance from the U.S. and the U.K., which it sees as part of American efforts to constrain China by deepening military ties with other countries in the region.

But with Australia unlikely to bend on that issue, Li's focus will likely be on moving past their differences and deepening economic ties. Australia, which has a trade surplus with China, is a major supplier of iron ore and other minerals to the world's second largest economy.

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