The Government is concerned about the way China is asserting itself in the region, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta says.
In a keynote speech to the New Zealand China Council meeting in Wellington yesterday, Mahuta raised a range of issues regarding Aotearoa's largest trading partner.
Today, in response to a question about the relationship between Australia and China, she told RNZ: "What we know is that China is invoking punitive actions and ways to assert itself in the region. We are concerned about that".
Mahuta expected that to be a subject of discussion with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne when they meet for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
She agreed that "growingly, it is the case" that China in recent years had been "aggressive, assertive and emboldened", and asserting challenges to "our part of the world".
"That is the case and the importance of stating and restating where the relationship has come to with New Zealand has been the purpose of my speech to the China Council," Mahuta said.
"It's a maturing relationship no doubt about that."
Asked how New Zealand would push back against China on issues like human rights, she said: "Let me be really clear about my statement in relation to the Five Eyes relationship. New Zealand isn't hesitant about our Five Eyes relationship.
"That's not the case at all, my point was the Five Eyes relationship ... was set up for a specific purpose, and it's not the case that we need to invoke the Five Eyes response every time there's an issue with China. In fact, building a broader consensus from a regional perspective is something we should do more because the concerns are not limited to the Five Eyes."
Asked about what that would mean for situations like Uighur Muslims in China - which other nations have put sanctions in place over - Mahuta said: "New Zealand doesn't have a sanctions regime like those countries.
"We favour diplomacy that involves dialogue, which ensures we build multilateral support for the things we advocate on that will protect our values and our interests."
New Zealand could impose travel bans but it was "really important" that the country upheld international "rules and norms and the institutions that support that and ensuring that when we act that we act with the support of the United Nations".
That did not make it look like the country was sitting on the fence and not prepared to stand up for its values by taking a weaker stand than other Five Eyes nations, Mahuta said.
"We stand on our own two feet in terms of our independent foreign policy. We protect the values and interests that support our long-term strategy for New Zealand and ... we look for multilateral partners on a number of fronts on a number of issues that are aligned."
That was the approach New Zealand had taken for a very long time, she said.