Chinese President Xi Jinping has said he attaches “great importance” to China’s relationship with New Zealand during a meeting tonight with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
The pair greeted each other, shook hands and posed for the obligatory media photo before heading into their meeting with respective delegations shortly before 9pm (NZ time).
Xi said he appreciated the importance Hipkins placed on the relationship with China and that he himself attached “great importance” to the relationship.
”After taking office as Prime Minister, you have stated multiple times that you value China-New Zealand relations and will continue to strengthen cooperation with China,” Xi said, speaking through a translator.
”I myself [am] attaching great importance to our relations with New Zealand,” he said.
”Our relationship has remained robust and strong. It has brought tangible benefits to people in our two countries and contributed to regional peace, stability and prosperity,” he said.
Hipkins described New Zealand’s relationship with China as a “friendship” following what he described as a “warm and constructive meeting”.
The pair discussed relations between China and New Zealand, China and the US, the Ukraine conflict, Pacific issues and human rights.
“New Zealand’s relationship with China is one of our most significant and wide-ranging so I was pleased to meet President Xi and reaffirm our important bilateral ties,” Hipkins said.
“We discussed many aspects of our relationship, including our significant economic ties and also people-to-people, cultural connections, and areas of direct bilateral cooperation like trade, education, science and innovation, agriculture and tourism.
“I also raised our shared interest in a stable and prosperous region, reiterating the importance of working together to support the international rules-based order and the constructive role China can play in addressing shared global challenges such as climate change, and the war in Ukraine.”
Hipkins said the pair also engaged on areas “where our cultures and political systems differ”.
“I reiterated we will always advocate for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand’s independent foreign policy or interests and values, in a respectful but consistent way.”
Xi made pointed remarks about other Pacific nations, perhaps Australia and the United States, noting that “the international community, especially countries in our region, have been following your visit very closely”.
”We should work together to kickstart a new 50 years of our bilateral relations and promote steady and sustained progress in our comprehensive strategic partnership,” Xi said.
It is the most significant engagement in his week-long trip to China, and comes at a pivotal time in New Zealand’s relationship with China and China’s relationship with the world.
The Herald will have updates from the meeting as it happens.
One topic that has worked its way onto the agenda is the deteriorating situation in Russia, following the aborted mutiny by the Yevgeny Prigozhin-led Wagner group over the weekend.
This has been a hot topic in Beijing this week, as it coincided with the city hosting Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko. China has offered its tacit backing to the Putin regime after the mutiny, refusing to weigh into it and describing it as Moscow’s “internal affairs”.
Speaking to media ahead of the trip Hipkins said the Government was “monitoring the situation in Russia very closely”.
He said the mutiny could have a positive impact if it lead to a de-escalation of the situation in Russia.
“If this is a catalyst for de-escalation of the conflict, that’s something that New Zealand would strongly support and welcome,” Hipkins said.
Whether the mutiny had compromised Putin’s position in China, he said, was ultimately a question for Russia’s people.
Hipkins has said trade is the primary aim of the trip, but topics like human rights and New Zealand’s objection to the increasing militarisation of the Pacific are also expected to come up.
The latter came up during what the Australian newspaper, citing an anonymous source, described as an hour-long harangue and a dressing down for Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta at the hands of her Chinese counterpart Qin Gangwhen she visited China in March.
Mahuta today did not deny reports of that meeting, describing it as “robust”.
Hipkins was asked whether he thought Xi would be similarly explosive, but only said he thought the meeting would be “diplomatic”.
Diplomacy between ministers tends to be more forthright and disputatious than meetings between leaders, which are designed to be less contentious to build strong interpersonal relations between leaders.
Before meeting Xi, Hipkins will meet Zhao Leji, the chairman of the National People’s Congress.
The tension between trade and security will be top of mind at the meeting, with Chinese state media, including the broadsheet People’s Daily and tabloid Global Times running pieces suggesting New Zealand can set an example for other Western nations in its engagement with China.
This would include taking a less hawkish “anti-China” approach on matters of security and human rights. The reward for this would be continued positive trade relations, with two-way trade now toalling $40 billion.
Hipkins began the day in Tianjin, a city of about 12 million people about 100km southeast of Beijing.
The city was hosting the World Economic Forum, which hosted a summer version of its Davos jamboree there.
Hipkins shares a panel with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, and the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Pham Minh Chinh.
Mottley had recently arrived from Paris where she, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, was pushing for developed nations to remove barriers to small states for accessing climate change development and adaptation funding.
The panel discussed adapting to global headwinds, like climate change. Hipkins said New Zealand tried to pull its weight on climate for the sake of preserving the “clean green” image used to market our exports.
Hipkins also met Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, who had more recently found fame as the target of online conspiracy theorists.
He had two brief “pull-aside” meetings with the Prime Minister of Mongolia, Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, and the World Trade Organisation director general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh made a minor faux pas during his bilateral meeting with Hipkins, which could be a case of things getting lost in translation.
Making opening remarks to media, Chính through a translator wished Hipkins’ party “success” in the forthcoming election.
Congratulating leaders on electoral success is fairly common and a non-partisan feature of diplomacy. What is less usual is wishing a party “success” in an election. The point is that leaders should be able to cooperate with whoever wins.
“I wish to extend my congratulations to your election as prime minister of New Zealand and I wish every success to your forthcoming election in New Zealand,” he said. This on its own is not contentious, as it could be interpreted to mean Chinh was wishing the country a successful election no matter who won.
What was slightly more awkward was the line that followed: “I wish all the success to your party,” he said through a translator.
Hipkins has not addressed media since the comments were made this morning. He looked relieved when the topic moved to more neutral ground: well-wishing for the forthcoming Fifa Women’s World Cup.