BEIJING • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday played up her country's "critically important" ties with China, while President Xi Jinping called for "mutual trust" amid tensions stemming from security concerns over Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
The two leaders made the remarks as they met at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Ms Ardern's first trip abroad since an attack at two mosques in Christchurch.
"Your visit to China fully reflects the importance that you and the New Zealand government attach to China-New Zealand relations," said Mr Xi, calling the island nation a "sincere friend and partner".
The trip is also Ms Ardern's first 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".
Delays in Ms Ardern's China trip - originally planned for late last year - fuelled concerns, along with the postponed launch of the China-New Zealand Year of Tourism, claims that some New Zealand exports faced clearance delays at Chinese ports and a Chinese media report that tourists were cancelling visits to New Zealand.
But Ms Ardern said yesterday her visit to Beijing aims to further her country's "critically important relationship" with China - New Zealand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade totalling NZ$27 billion (S$25 billion) last year.
SIGNIFICANCE OF VISIT
Your visit to China fully reflects the importance that you and the New Zealand government attach to China-New Zealand relations.
CHINA'S PRESIDENT XI JINPING, in his speech welcoming New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ms Ardern has 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.
In his opening remarks to Ms Ardern, Mr Xi urged both countries to "adhere to mutual trust (and) the principle of mutual benefit" as bilateral relations between the countries face a "new trend".
The New Zealand leader held talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before her meeting with Mr Xi, signing memorandums of understanding on agricultural cooperation, bilateral financial dialogue as well as science and research cooperation
The two 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.
Mr Li urged both sides to aspire for the "greatest common denominator" and said that "when each side's businesses invest in each other's businesses, they can enjoy a fair, transparent, convenient environment".
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.
Her short visit to China comes in the wake of the mosque attack in Christchurch last month that left 50 people dead and prompted Ms Ardern to overhaul New Zealand's gun laws.
A longer trip had been planned, but was shortened to just a day following the attack.
Both Mr Xi and Mr Li expressed their condolences for those killed in the shooting.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG