Speech to China Business Summit

Prime Minister

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, ata marie, tena koutou katoa, good morning.

I am very happy to be here with you once again at my fourth China Business Summit.

Thanks again to you, Fran, for being the driving force behind this event. 

As ever, I’m very pleased to see such a range of speakers and participants - this reflects the continuing breadth of engagement between New Zealand and China. 

I hardly need to tell this audience that it’s been yet another year of change and disruption.  But there has of course been progress and cause for optimism too.

Today I’m going to talk about both.

Let me first make some comments about the past year for us as a country, and also in our relationship with China. 

Some of you will remember that when we last spoke I wanted to leave you with three key messages. Today I want to build on those in a more substantive way:

  • First, that China’s geostrategic relevance is a reality that no country can ignore;
  • Second, that New Zealand and China have very different perspectives on some issues, and we will need to work hard to manage those differences effectively; and
  • Third, that there continue to be opportunities for New Zealand and China to work together, particularly in international trade, environment and climate change, and of course in our response to the global pandemic.

I’m also going to add a fourth takeaway point to the list this year, and will talk more about that shortly.

Let me start, though, by acknowledging that New Zealand’s relationship with China is one of our most significant.

Our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership continues to provide a strong foundation for the relationship.  And we remain committed to our one China policy.

Minister Mahuta spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi soon after she took office. 

Minister O’Connor has also spoken with his Chinese counterpart and he can tell you more about that later this morning. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation – remotely of course – at the invitation of the Chinese government, at the opening plenary of China’s annual Bo’ao Forum hosted by President Xi Jinping.

Trade in goods between our two countries has remained resilient despite the challenges of COVID. While some of our goods exports to China declined in the early months of the pandemic last year, our overall exports have remained strong. 

Some exports to China – for example, dairy, honey and kiwifruit – increased in value in 2020 on the previous year, despite COVID.

Our two-way trade flows are now well in excess of $30 billion per year.

New Zealand food exports remain among the safest and purest in the world, and in great demand, and we are all rightly proud of that.

And despite the restrictions placed upon us all by COVID-19, exchanges in agriculture, business, and climate change remain strong.

The successful signing of our FTA upgrade in January will bring benefit on both sides.

For New Zealand, it provides new commitments on services markets in China, tariff elimination on wood and paper products, improvements in customs procedures, and new chapters on e-commerce and the environment. 

Minister O’Connor will say more on this shortly, but what I will say is that the upgrade ensures that the rules underpinning our bilateral trade are responsive to changing patterns of commerce, up-to-date, and fit-for-purpose. 

We also welcome the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with China’s ratification last month.

New Zealand is also well-advanced in our domestic ratification process and we look forward to the early entry into force of both of these important agreements.

And beyond this, we are working to increase New Zealand’s long-term resilience and gain better access for New Zealand companies to a diverse range of markets and economic opportunities.

I acknowledge here once again the difficulties that COVID has brought for our education and tourism industries.

We are keeping in touch with China on our borders and travel settings. 

Our travel bubble with Australia is the first positive, practical step.  The New Zealand border is likely to continue to be restricted for some time yet, as the world continues to deal with COVID, but we will continue to find innovative ways to engage.

COVID-19 has prevented many of the people-to-people connections that would normally have taken place, and that are so important for New Zealand and China, but links remain strong. 

I welcome the work on both sides to support greater cultural awareness and understanding.

In a year where Chinese New Year events were affected in many places around the world because of COVID, it was particularly special to be able to participate once again in lively celebrations here in New Zealand.

And last month Māori and Chinese community leaders gathered to bless a memorial to the SS Ventnor, which sank off the coast of the Hokianga Harbour in 1902 while carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners back to their homeland. 

This once again highlights our long history together and the importance both countries place on that.

We need to do all we can to maintain and grow our people to people links, and to improve understanding and connection.

These exchanges are core to our relationship. 

As Minister Mahuta observed in her speech to the New Zealand China Council, different perspectives can underpin cultural exchange and learning. 

But some differences challenge New Zealand’s interests and values. 

With that in mind, earlier I mentioned that I wanted to add a fourth takeaway point this morning.

And that is that:

Managing the relationship is not always going to be easy and there can be no guarantees.

What do I mean by this? 

Given our two countries’ different histories, worldviews and political and legal systems, New Zealand and China are going to take different perspectives on some important issues. 

We will continue to work through these in a consistent manner, as we have always done.

But as Minister Mahuta said last month, we need to acknowledge that there are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree.

This need not derail our relationship, it is simply a reality.

New Zealand is an open, pluralistic, democracy, with a focus on transparency and the rule of law. 

We take a principles-based approach to our foreign policy, and we make our decisions independently, informed by our own assessment of New Zealand's interests and values.

We have shown this quite clearly over the past year by deliberately choosing when we make public statements on issues of concern, and with whom.

New Zealanders expect their government to take a principled stance on issues, particularly where our values are at stake – I know this because I hear it directly from them. 

The government will continue to act in a way that serves our interests, reflects our values and maintains our independent foreign policy.

In the past year, for example, we chose to raise some issues with China in private. But alongside this, we also chose to make public statements with a significant number of other countries in multilateral bodies such as the Human Rights Council. 

At other times we have chosen to partner with Australia, the UK, the US and other countries that share our views and values. 

And sometimes we spoke out alone.

We have commented publicly about our grave concerns regarding the human rights situation of Uyhgurs in Xinjiang. 

I have raised these concerns with senior Chinese leaders on a number of occasions, including with the Guandong Party Secretary in September 2018, and then with China’s leaders when I visited in 2019. 

You’ll know that, as a government, we have also spoken out about continued negative developments with regard to the rights, freedoms and autonomy of the people of Hong Kong.

Alongside areas of cooperation that I mentioned earlier, areas where we disagree form part of a comprehensive relationship. 

Areas of difference need not define a relationship. 

But equally, they are part and parcel of New Zealand staying true to who we are as a nation.

And it will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.

This is a challenge that we, and many other countries across the Indo Pacific region, but also in Europe and other regions, are also grappling with.

As a significant power, the way that China treats its partners is important for us.

And we will continue to promote the things that we believe in, and support the rules-based system that underpins our collective well-being.

As I said in my recent remarks to the Bo’ao Forum for Asia, New Zealand is a strong supporter of the rules, norms and international frameworks that govern global affairs.

We are active members of the WTO, WHO, the bodies upholding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, international climate change arrangements, and international human rights treaties, among others.

Rules, norms and institutions provide the basis for our prosperity and security; and they facilitate cooperation on global issues that can only be solved collectively.

I’d again echo the words of Minister Mahuta.   We hope that China too sees it in its own core interests to act in the world in ways that are consistent with its responsibilities as a growing power, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Let me turn now to a key economic forum in which New Zealand and China have a long history of collaboration. 

As the host of APEC in 2021, New Zealand has a unique opportunity as the Chair, to play a role in shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific.

In November last year I joined APEC Leaders, including President Xi, to set out a vision that will guide the APEC region over the next 20 years.

The Putrajaya Vision we agreed sets out the aspiration of an open, dynamic, resilient and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040. 

Now, as APEC host, New Zealand holds the pen on shaping a plan to deliver on this vision. It’s a big responsibility and one that I am embracing.

How we collectively respond to the challenges faced by the APEC region today will be felt for generations to come.

Of course the greatest challenge at present is the impact of COVID-19 on the region’s people and economy.

New Zealand is working with the 20 other APEC economies, including China, to ensure that our economic responses to COVID-19 – in areas like trade and economic policy - are pulling in the same direction. 

In particular, we want the recovery to be a sustainable and equitable one: harnessing digital technologies, decarbonising our economies, and ensuring that recovery is for all – including women, small businesses and indigenous and ethnic communities.

Inspired by the Māori proverb - Haumi-ē, Hui-ē, Taiki-ē – our aspiration for APEC in 2021 is:

  • to Join Together, to reignite growth and plan for a long-lasting economic recovery;
  • to Work Together, for the collective good of the region;
  • and to Grow Together, to foster prosperity and well-being that is sustainable and inclusive.

We look forward to working closely with China and our other APEC partners to realise this vision, and I look forward to my discussions with President Xi in APEC later this year. 

And looking ahead a little further, next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China. 

Of course, relations between the peoples of our two countries stretch back much further in history, but fifty years of official recognition and cooperation is an achievement we’ll all want to celebrate.  We’ve done a lot and come a long way together.

Maintaining contact, and promoting understanding, between our two countries and peoples remains a crucial foundation of our relationship. The pandemic continues around the world, but we have seen that this does not stop us from working, trading, and talking together.

This Summit is an excellent example of just that. I wish everyone here all the best for the rest of today’s activities. 

Your hard work and connections form the backbone of this relationship, and it is the government’s job to support you wherever we can.

Thank you