China calls on New Zealand to provide ‘fair’ investment environment

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) listens to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) during a signing ceremony after their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 1, 2019. Naohiko Hatta/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on New Zealand on Monday to ensure a fair investment environment, as he meets Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern whose country has rejected a bid by Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build a 5G mobile network.

Ardern, on a one-day visit to China, said before meeting Li that she hoped to have a dialogue with Beijing about New Zealand’s intelligence agency’s decision to reject the bid.

Ties with China have been tense under Ardern’s government which has openly raised concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the South Pacific.

China postponed a major tourism campaign in New Zealand days before its launch in February.

“At present, China-New Zealand ties overall are developing in a stable manner,” Li told Ardern at the start of their meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the people, noting New Zealand’s desire for good relations.

“China also places high importance on relations with New Zealand,” he said.

“And we hope that we can aspire to the greatest common denominator regarding each others’ interests and that when each sides businesses invest in each other’s businesses, they can enjoy a fair, transparent, convenient environment.”

Ardern told Li that she wanted to underline the importance her country placed on its relationship with China. In 2008, New Zealand became the first Western country to sign a free trade agreement with China.

“I reiterated to Premier Li that New Zealand welcomes all high-quality foreign investment that will bring productive economic growth to our country,” she said in a statement following the meeting.

“We discussed the FTA upgrade, and agreed to hold the next round of negotiations soon and to make joint efforts towards reaching an agreement as soon as possible.”

China is New Zealand’s largest goods export partner.

Talking to reporters before the Li meeting, Ardern said she would set out the process New Zealand followed in the Huawei decision, and point out that there had been no political or diplomatic influence in the matter. She said media reports that suggest Huawei was banned in New Zealand were not true.

The interview with reporters was streamed on New Zealand’s 1NEWS.

Ardern has acknowledged there were complexities in the relationship with China but has dismissed concerns of a rift with New Zealand’s largest trading partner.

The trip has been trimmed down to a one-day visit in the wake of an attack on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 that killed 50 people.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called in a letter to Arden last week for her to publicly express concern about the situation in China’s far Western region of Xinjiang when she meets Chinese leaders.

China has faced growing international opprobrium over a controversial de-radicalization programme in the heavily Muslim populated Xinjiang, where critics say China is running internment camps.

China strongly denies this and calls them vocational training centers, defending its need to de-radicalize a part of the country where the government has blamed Islamist extremists and separatists for multiple attacks in which hundreds have died in recent years.

Before her meeting with Li, Ardern said New Zealand had raised the issue of Uighur Muslims in the past but did not say if it would be discussed.

“Human rights issues are things that New Zealand routinely raises in our bilaterals with China,” she said. There was no mention of human rights in Ardern’s later statement.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON; Editing by Michael Perry)

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