New Zealand says won't 'choose sides' between US and China, as Chinese PM Li Keqiang visits

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his wife Cheng Hong wave as they arrive in Wellington on March 26, 2017.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his wife Cheng Hong wave as they arrive in Wellington on March 26, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand said on Sunday (March 26) that it did not plan to "choose sides" on trade between the United States and China, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived for a visit focused on the issue.

Wellington in 2008 became the first developed nation to sign a free trade agreement with Beijing and China is now New Zealand's second-largest commercial partner, with two-way trade worth NZ$23 billion (S$22.6 billion) last year.

Both sides agreed late last year to upgrade the deal and Li's visit is seen as a way to speed up negotiations.

New Zealand Trade Minister Todd McClay said closer ties with Beijing need not affect relations with Washington, which withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade deal after US President Donald Trump took office.

The pullout has jeopardised the future of the TPP, which would have included New Zealand but excluded China.

China is pushing a rival pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include New Zealand.

"No, we don't have to choose sides," Mr McClay told TVNZ.

"Wherever there is an agreement or an opportunity that delivers a greater fairness for New Zealanders in the US or China... then New Zealand will look at that." Mr Li, who has just wrapped up a trade mission to Australia, will hold talks with Prime Minister Bill English in Wellington on Monday.

He will meet business leaders in Auckland on Tuesday before departing early Wednesday.