WELLINGTON • New Zealand's new foreign minister said yesterday that her country would be willing to help negotiate a truce between neighbouring Australia and regional heavyweight China, who are caught in an escalating trade and diplomatic spat.
Ms Nanaia Mahuta, 50, said hosting the high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit next year presented an opportunity for New Zealand to bring both parties to the table.
"Do I believe that there might be an opportunity for New Zealand to create a different environment and have a conversation? Yes, I do," Ms Mahuta said in an interview with Reuters. "And I think hosting Apec might well be the opportunity... but both parties will have to be willing to come together and concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye."
Relations have deteriorated over new foreign interference and investment laws in Australia, calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and Chinese blocks on Australian exports.
Tensions worsened last month after a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman posted a tweet that featured a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child. It was a reference to an Australian war crimes inquiry, which found that Australian troops had murdered Afghan civilians.
New Zealand raised concerns with China about using the image.
"I don't think Twitter diplomacy can be achieved when disinformation is promoted through social media. I think we need to go back to tried and tested diplomacy which is dialogue and ensuring doors are open so people can work through some challenging issues," she said.
Ms Mahuta also recently joined counterparts from Five Eyes intelligence partners - Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States - in condemning China for disqualifying legislators in Hong Kong. This angered China which reacted by warning the Western alliance that it could get "poked in the eye".
Under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government, New Zealand has criticised China's lending to small Pacific islands, raised concerns about Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region and backed Taiwan's participation at the World Health Organisation despite a warning from Beijing.
Law professor Alexander Gillespie from the University of Waikato said New Zealand is still well placed to try to broker some kind of calming measures.
"There is no guarantee that getting the two sides to sit down and talk calmly will work. It would be a very, very, long road ahead - but it would be heading in a different direction to where we are currently going," he said.