Foreign Minister Winston Peters said people passing judgment on China, particularly from the West, should have more regard the massive problems it had faced and he quoted Janis Joplin to make his point.

He made his comments today, diverting from speech notes, to open a symposium at Victoria University's Confucius Institute to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China.

The New Zealand China relationship started with ordinary people, Peters said.

What gave the New Zealand Government confidence in the future of the relationship were the connections between people.

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"And we should also remember this when we are actually making judgments about China and about freedom in their laws that when you have hundreds of millions of people to be re-employed and to be relocated with the change of your economic structure, you have some massive huge problems.

"And sometimes the West and commentators in the West should have a little more regard to that and the economic outcomes of those people rather than be constantly harping on about 'the romance of freedom' or as a famous singer once sang, Janis Joplin, remember that song?

"She said 'freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose.'

"In some way the Chinese have got a lot to teach us when it comes to uplifting everybody's economic future in their plans."

In his prepared speech, Peters touched on the South China seas territorial dispute, although not by specific reference.

He said New Zealand and China had grown beyond the business and institutional contacts.

The continued prosperity and security of the Asia-Pacific region was important to China and New Zealand.

"New Zealand supports a stable, rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region in which free trade and connectivity can thrive.

"We urge parties to resolve disputes in accordance with international law, on the basis of diplomacy and dialogue."

Peters made reference to the New Zealand's support for China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, development modern transport routes across Asia to Europe.

He also said New Zealand and China were negotiating an upgrade of the 2008 free trade agreement to further reduce barriers impacting on exports but he added – "I do not think it will be as easy as some people think."

Peters had talks with his counterpart, Wang Yi, at Apec in Vietnam last month and accepted an invitation to go to China next year.

Peters referred to the first Chinese immigrant to New Zealand, Appo Hocton, who arrived in 1842 by jumping ship in Nelson and becoming a successful businessman.

He also talked about Rewi Alley, a Taranaki sheep farmer, who left for China 90 years ago and has celebrated by successive Chinese leaders as a friend.

* Peters got the lyrics slightly wrong. It should be "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." It is from the Kris Kristofferson song "Me and Bobby McGee."