In a joint statement issued last week, prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison expressed “serious concerns” over developments in the South China Sea, including the “continued militarisation of disputed features”.
They also shared “deep concerns” about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and called on China to respect the human rights of the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities.
China has labelled New Zealand’s security and human rights concerns against Beijing as “groundless accusations”, further fuelling tensions between the nations.
Ardern also said New Zealand will support its trans-Tasman neighbour in its ongoing trade dispute with China.
Australia, which also relies heavily on the Chinese market for international education, has had an increasingly tense relationships with China, which escalated last year after calling for a global investigations into the origins of the coronavirus. Australia has since faced widespread and severe trade sanctions.
“The leaders of Australia and New Zealand… have made groundless accusations against China”
China has also issued several warnings to its citizens and particularly students, to avoid travelling to the country citing serious personal safety concerns and growing racism.
There is strong speculation that these warnings are related to the ongoing geopolitical tensions, and the Australian government dismissed them as ‘disinformation’.
Following the joint statement on human rights concerns released by Ardern and Morrison, China responded by saying that the New Zealand and Australian leaders had made “irresponsible remarks” on its internal affairs and made groundless accusations against Beijing.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the government has taken note of the statement and is deeply concerned.
“The leaders of Australia and New Zealand, with irresponsible remarks on China’s internal affairs relating to Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as the South China Sea issue, have made groundless accusations against China, grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and seriously violated the international law and basic norms governing international relations,” Wenbin noted. “China firmly opposes this.”
Concerns have been raised that New Zealand might face similar sanctions to Australia if it continues to speak out against China, a country which currently represents more than US$33 billion of New Zealand’s total trade and 28% of exports.
Specifically, international education is a $5bn industry, and Chinese students make up about 47% of international students at New Zealand universities.
The two countries have had a strong partnership in the sector, only recently signing a refreshed agreement on qualification recognition, information sharing and joint research at the 9th Joint Working Group on Education and Training meeting in March.
However, the recent statement by the prime ministers along with comments made by New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta about the need to be less reliant on Beijing in case the relationship turned sour, has displeased China.
“It may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us”
“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” Mahuta recently told The Guardian.
Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said that progress in relations are based “on the premise that the two sides have long been committed to mutual respect, mutual trust and win-win results” and urged Wellington to work with China to advance a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.
Universities New Zealand declined to comment on the growing tensions and potential impact on the international education sector, saying each university has its own international relationships.