New Zealand’s Minister for Trade Damien O’Connor has called on Australia to follow his country’s lead, relax its assertive approach and “show respect” to China in order to make more diplomatic progress with Beijing.
Speaking in an interview with CNBC, O’Connor highlighted New Zealand’s recent successful trade negotiations with China, signing a deal that updates their current free-trade agreement and opens up further exports from Wellington to Beijing.
“I can’t speak for Australia and the way it runs its diplomatic relationships,” O’Connor said, stating that “if they were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, then they, too, could hopefully be in a similar situation.”
The comments reflect a rare public split from New Zealand’s intelligence partners in the ‘Five Eyes,’ Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, over their approach to handling China. Wellington has, in recent months, refused to sign statements from the Five Eyes group criticizing Beijing’s behavior in Hong Kong and its crackdown on activists who were involved in the 2019 protests.
In order to minimize any tensions after the interview, O’Connor called his counterpart in Canberra on Thursday to explain that he recognizes the “Australia-China relationship will always be a matter for China and Australia.”
Australia’s trade minister, Dan Tehan, released a statement after the call that said the country’s approach to Beijing is “based on an assessment of our national interests,” suggesting that his government was dismissing New Zealand’s advice. Although, he did highlight that Canberra is always willing to engage directly with China in an attempt to resolve any difference and work together on collective issues.
Australia and China have been in a tense trade war after relations between the two countries fell to their lowest point since formal diplomatic ties were established nearly 50 years ago. The standoff began after Canberra called for an investigation into how Covid-19 began, which Beijing saw as an insult over its handling of the pandemic. In response to China’s decision to impose large tariffs on some Australian goods, Canberra reported it to the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that Beijing’s actions are unjust and retaliatory. However, the WTO process could take several years to reach a conclusion.
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