AP

Australian, New Zealand leaders’ talk focuses on China

Feb 6, 2023, 10:28 PM | Updated: 10:37 pm

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, left, listens as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albane...

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, left, listens as Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks during a joint press conference in Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hilary Wardhaugh)

(AP Photo/Hilary Wardhaugh)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian and New Zealand prime ministers met Tuesday to talk about China’s importance to their national economies, resolving to voice their disagreements with their most important trading partner that is becoming more assertive in their region.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins made Australia the destination of his first overseas trip as his government’s leader since his predecessor Jacinda Ardern announced her surprise resignation in January.

The visit to Australia’s Parliament House comes two weeks after Hipkins assumed office on Jan. 25. He used a joint press conference with his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese to give an assurance that he was keeping New Zealand’s foreign policy direction.

“Our foreign policy position hasn’t changed just because there’s a change of prime minister,” Hipkins said. “The government foreign policy is the same as it was under Prime Minister Ardern.”

A reporter put to Hipkins that Ardern had been reluctant to stand up against “bad behavior by China” and asked if he was concerned about Chinese coercion in the South Pacific.

“China is an incredibly important partner for New Zealand, a very important trading partner, and a partner in other areas as well,” Hipkins replied. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be areas where we disagree from time to time, and we’ll continue to voice our disagreements with China when that happens and we’ll always continue to strive to strengthen that ongoing relationship.”

Albanese said Australia’s national interests include restoring good trade and economic relations with China.

“Our position on China is clear, that we’ll cooperate where we can, we’ll disagree where we must and we’ll engage in our national interests,” Albanese said.

Albanese’s center-left government is rebuilding Australia’s trading relationship with China after bilateral ties plumbed new depths under the previous conservative government’s nine years in power.

Chinese and Australian trade ministers on Monday had their first meeting in more than three years in a major step toward normalizing relations.

Official and unofficial trade barriers on Australian products including coal, beef, seafood, barley and wood cost Australian exporters 20 billion Australian dollars ($14 billion) a year. The barriers are largely seen as Beijing punishing the previous government for disagreements including Australian demands for an independent inquiry into the origins of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some say New Zealand has avoided such trade retaliation by avoiding criticizing China.

New Zealand found itself on the defensive with its Five Eyes security allies — United States, Canada, Britain and Australia — in 2021 by resisting speaking out in unison with them against China on certain human rights issues.

The New Zealand and Australian prime ministers’ talks Tuesday covered their economies, security and climate change. Both countries are also attempting to improve engagement with their South Pacific island neighbors to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

China made some bold geopolitical moves in 2022 in the Pacific, first by signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands and then attempting — unsuccessfully — to get 10 Pacific nations to sign a sweeping agreement covering everything from security to fisheries.

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Australian, New Zealand leaders’ talk focuses on China