The Prime Minister has faced two curly issues on his trade mission to China where he hopes to update our free trade agreement. First, an editorial in the state-controlled press suggested he should not raise the subject of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. Then he faced a request for an extradition treaty that could see Chinese nationals in New Zealand returned to face the death penalty.

Mr Key dealt with the first issue easily - perhaps too easily. He said he could not ignore the South China Sea in his talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, but added, "nor will we have any surprises for the Chinese leadership". New Zealand's position, he said, was not to take sides and to hope all countries involved could reach a peaceful resolution. New Zealand's position should be much stronger than that.

China has taken the extraordinary step of building artificial islands in the sea it claims far to its south. Now it appears to be militarising them. Its actions have been deeply unsettling for Southeast Asia, a region where New Zealand has maintained relationships just as valuable in their own way as that with China. Its sea claim may be longstanding but China is seeking to extend its maritime territory far beyond reasonable international limits.

The extradition question is more directly involved in talks to advance trade and business relationships. China wants to ensure its citizens cannot take illegally gained wealth out of the country and buy themselves a refuge from China's law. Unfortunately its law permits capital punishment for crimes such as fraud and corruption. New Zealand has previously taken the stance that the death penalty precluded an extradition treaty but Mr Key now says the Government will consider one.


China must be making this a firm condition of any improvement in the free trade agreement for Mr Key to be relenting on this question, for he knows the fight he would be buying back here. The Green Party wasted no time yesterday accusing him of trading people for milk. Still, it may be possible to reach an extradition arrangement that protects those at risk of the death penalty. Australia proposed just such an exemption in talks with China on a treaty on mutual assistance on criminal matters in 2006. Australian law requires assistance to be refused where it could result in the death penalty "unless the Attorney General [having regard to the special circumstances of the case] is of the opinion the assistance should be granted".

A treaty in those terms was not ratified at that time but has been revived by the Turnbull Government in trade missions to China this year. Australia and New Zealand have extradition agreements with other countries using capital punishment, notably the US. China's legal system is more closed than many and uses execution probably more than any. An extradition treaty is not attractive, but nor is the prospect of being a refuge for anyone suspected of serious fraud, money laundering and the like.

New Zealand courts look long and carefully at appeals against extradition. That should be sufficient protection.

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