COMMENT: By Todd McClay

The Government appears to be glossing over a deterioration of our relationship with our largest trading partner, China.

The cause of this change in our standing is simple.

Our Government has not put in the effort required to maintain this important relationship.

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This is bad news for the many New Zealanders whose businesses and jobs depend upon the mutual respect between China and New Zealand that has grown over decades and been nurtured by successive Governments.

Our relationship with China is worth over $27 billion in two way trade.

They buy huge quantities of beef and lamb and dairy products and seafood and timber and it's rapidly becoming one of our largest tourism and export education earners.

This rapid growth in two way trade helped protect us during the Global Financial Crisis and has been a major driver of economic opportunity and prosperity over the last decade.

However, our relationship is deeper than simply economic.

New Zealand and China have been linked as far back as 1840.

Our people have traded and lived and prospered together since then.

In 1972 we formalised diplomatic relations and our relationship has rightly gone from strength to strength since.

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New Zealand was the first country to agree to China's accession to the World Trade Organisation and we were the first country to conclude a free trade agreement with China.

We've worked together on issues ranging from trade and tourism to foreign aid and climate change.

We've developed links for as long as we have been modern countries and the relationship is rooted in that history.

This relationship has been important to successive New Zealand Governments.

The previous Government, which I was part of, put a high value on developing our partnership through trade and people to people links.

We initiated negotiations for an upgrade of our free trade agreement with China, an agreement that has already delivered billions of dollars to our economy and has supported new jobs within our export and tourism industries.

This upgrade is yet to be concluded.

We further partnered with China by initiating the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism that is being held this year.

China is an increasingly valuable partner in tourism, projected to be worth $3 billion by 2024.

The previous National Government worked alongside China to help deliver on our international goals.

Our cooperation delivered better water infrastructure for the Cook Islands and resulted in the China-New Zealand Climate Change Action Plan.

This relationship has been beneficial to New Zealand, delivering economic growth, jobs, and advancing our ability to deliver on our international obligations. And all that was possible because, as a small country, we didn't take it for granted.

We didn't always agree - we raised concerns about the South China Sea, human rights and our longstanding opposition to the death penalty – but we also ensured that the communication channels were open when there were differences we needed to discuss and we made sure that both sides knew the value that each placed on respect and diplomacy.

But the current Government doesn't seem to appreciate the importance of diplomacy.

During the 2017 election, the parties of the current Government regularly blamed China and people from China for problems in New Zealand.

The Labour Party even embarked on an exercise of political point scoring about housing by appallingly blaming people with Chinese sounding names for the pressures we were facing – causing considerable offence along the way.

We have also seen repositioning from the Foreign Minister, distancing the Government from this relationship as well as unhelpful language being used by government agencies regarding the Pacific.

The Deputy Prime Minister's consistently careless remarks around things like the Belt and Road Initiative, unnecessarily provocative comments on the recent Defence Statement, and his speech at Georgetown late last year that the Prime Minister didn't know about, have all contributed to this decline.

The Government insists that our relationship remains strong in the face of a mounting body of evidence to the contrary - and of course they would do so.

They talk about bipartisanship in Foreign Affairs, but that doesn't mean just agreeing with the Government no matter what harm might be caused by false steps on the international stage.

The most recent example of this was the revelation that they've been forced to postpone the Opening Ceremony for the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, an important economic partnership between our countries because of so called 'scheduling issues'. There is now no date for this long awaited launch.

We also know that the Prime Minister still has not secured a visit to Beijing – she again blames 'scheduling issues' but after 16 months as Prime Minister she still has not visited our largest trading partner.

This makes her the first elected Prime Minister since before Robert Muldoon to fail to visit China or host the Chinese Premier in New Zealand in their first year in office.

Trade Minister David Parker made his first visit to China after a year in office and couldn't secure a meeting with his counterpart, the Commerce Minister of our largest trading partner. He said it was because they were 'to busy', but saw the deputy instead.

Moreover, we are yet to see any real progress on the upgrade to the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement.

Negotiations for this were begun in April 2017, and there is big expectation of improvements in dairy and processed wood access to the China market.

This upgrade should have been completed by now and New Zealand exporters should be benefiting, yet the Government remains silent.

The prospect of a deteriorating relationship with China is a major risk.

It hampers certainty in the economy and creates uncertainty for our exporters and tourism operators. It has the potential to put pressure on jobs reliant on trade and it challenges our ability to harness the benefits of export-led growth.

If the Prime Minister wants to avoid undermining decades of diplomatic success by successive New Zealand Prime Ministers then she needs to treat the concerns of a growing numbers of China-NZ experts and New Zealand exporters with more urgency and quickly work to restore respect to this relationship with our largest trading partner.

* Todd McClay is the National Party Spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Trade; and Tourism, and MP for Rotorua.