New Zealand has learned to build a relationship on the basis of mutual respect, despite obvious differences in core values, writes Sir Don McKinnon.

A large contingent of mayors and business delegates from cities across China met their Kiwi counterparts In Wellington this week and a conference will commemorate the progress in the relationship since diplomatic relations were established in 1972.

In the NZ China Council we believe the continuing expansion of the relationship is overwhelmingly in our country's interest, bringing diversity to our international links, growth to our cities and regions and opportunities for rich cultural exchange with our Chinese friends.

But, as might be expected in a robust democracy, not everyone sees this in the same way.

The past months have seen a spike in commentary about the extent of Chinese political influence in New Zealand – even the allegation that our democracy risks being undermined and that we're letting it happen because China buys a lot of our stuff.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said recently, we should always take seriously any risk that New Zealand's interests are being impacted by influence from foreign countries.

In the case of China the relationship is almost half a century old. Over that time, we've learned to build the relationship on the basis of mutual respect, despite obvious differences in core values.

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New Zealand is a proud liberal democracy, while China's political system is clearly different. Our approaches to human rights and other value-based issues are also noticeably different.

Both sides recognise these differences and they certainly do not stop New Zealand from living up to its values.

Despite the occasional visit from a Chinese naval ship, we maintain close defence and intelligence ties with our Western allies.

Despite extensive trade ties with China, we advocate for the merits of the TPP (now the CPTPP). We have public disagreements from time to time.

I know from my time as Foreign Minister that we discuss human rights issues. To suggest we are too scared or cautious to ever rock the boat with China is simply incorrect.

Our democracy is precious and certainly worth standing up for.

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The more specific allegations that have been made recently are that New Zealand's local Chinese communities, institutions and individuals are being co-opted as part of a wider push by China to assert its world view, mobilise support for its policies and directly influence our political process.

These allegations are extremely serious, particularly where public figures are involved. As such, they require a very high standard of evidence.

That community networks exist does not mean they are being used for political manipulation. If there has indeed been misbehaviour or unwarranted interference, then it is up to the relevant agencies who will need to take action.

What China has been doing in New Zealand is using 'soft power' to project influence.

This is the opposite of 'hard power' such as military might, and is something almost all countries, even New Zealand, engages in. Supporting language learning, cultural diplomacy, academic exchanges, and journalist visits can all be seen as elements of soft power.

New Zealand economic relationship with China has grown rapidly. Picture / NZME
New Zealand economic relationship with China has grown rapidly. Picture / NZME

Given the New Zealand China relationship has grown rapidly, especially on the economic side, it is not surprising that China's profile is expanding in New Zealand and the effects of its soft power are more widely felt here.

New Zealand's democracy thrives on robust debate from all sections of our community. Journalists, academics, business leaders and citizens all have a right to take part in this process.

The NZ China Council is dedicated to strengthening the relationship with China and we welcome debate and public discussion especially as our relationship expands and matures.

We might wish for the debate to be less polemical, but we understand that opinions are strongly held.

Our democracy is precious and certainly worth standing up for. And if there is wrongdoing anywhere, New Zealand's institutions and agencies are more than capable of protecting our democracy from challenges without and within.