New Zealand PM Ardern touts ‘important’ China ties amid Huawei spat

China's Premier Li Keqiang and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on April 1, 2019.

BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday (April 1) played up her country's "important" ties with China despite tensions stemming from security concerns over Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Ms Ardern made the remarks as she met with Premier Li Keqiang at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on her first trip abroad since the Christchurch mosque attack.

Ms Ardern, on a one-day visit to China, said before meeting Mr Li that she hoped to have a dialogue with Beijing about New Zealand's intelligence agency's decision to reject the bid.

Ms Ardern said she would set out the process New Zealand followed in the Huawei decision, and point out that there had been no political or diplomatic influence in the matter.

"This is an opportunity to have a dialogue to talk about the way the process has been undertaken to date and where it currently stands," she said, adding that some media reports that suggest Huawei is banned in New Zealand are not true.

"At present, China-New Zealand ties overall are developing in a stable manner," Mr Li told Ms Ardern at the start of their meeting, noting New Zealand's desire for good relations.

He called on New Zealand to ensure a "fair" investment environment.

"China also places a high importance on relations with New Zealand and is willing to," he said. "And we hope that we can aspire to the greatest common denominator regarding each other's interests and that when each side's businesses invest in each other's businesses, they can enjoy a fair, transparent, convenient environment."

Ms Ardern told Mr Li that she wanted to underline the importance her country placed on its relationship with China. In 2008, New Zealand became the first Western country to sign a free trade agreement with China.

"It is one of our most important and far reaching relationships," she added. "We already enjoy a relationship with an impressive and innovative history and a very impressive future."

Ms Ardern has acknowledged that there were complexities in the relationship with China, but has dismissed concerns of a rift with New Zealand's largest trading partner.

The trip is Ms Ardern's first trip to China since she was elected in late 2017 - an unusually long wait for the leader of a nation that signed a pioneering free-trade deal with Beijing in 2008.

Relations between Beijing and Wellington have been strained in recent months after New Zealand's intelligence agency last November halted plans for Chinese-owned telecom giant Huawei to participate in a proposed 5G network, citing "significant security risks".

Ms Ardern had repeatedly played down the spat with Huawei.

Last month, she said New Zealand was in talks to minimise the security risks posed by using the Chinese telecom giant's equipment in 5G infrastructure, raising the prospect of a compromise on the issue.

Ms Ardern called for upgrading New Zealand's free trade agreement with China and said the country "welcomed high-quality foreign investment", her office said in a statement after the meeting.

The two leaders also discussed ways for New Zealand to participate in Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a global trade infrastructure programme that includes Pacific island nations that traditionally fell under the spheres of influence of Canberra and Wellington.

Ms Ardern will also hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday afternoon before returning home the next day.

Her short visit to China comes in the wake of a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch last month that left 50 people dead and prompted her to overhaul New Zealand's gun laws.

A longer trip had been planned, was but shortened to just a day following the attack.

Mr Li expressed condolences for those killed in the shooting.

In a letter to Ms Ardern last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch called for the Prime Minister to publicly express concern about the situation in China's far Western region of Xinjiang when she meets Chinese leaders.

China has faced growing international opprobrium over a controversial de-radicalisation programme in the heavily Muslim populated Xinjiang, where critics say China is running internment camps.

China strongly denies this and calls them vocational training centres, defending its need to de-radicalise a part of the country where the government has blamed Islamist extremists and separatists for multiple attacks in which hundreds have died in recent years.

Ms Ardern said New Zealand has raised the issue of Uighur Muslims in the past but did not specify if it would be discussed in the meetings on Monday.

"Human rights issues are things that New Zealand routinely raises in our bilaterals with China," she said.

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