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The Future of Asia 2021

New Zealand will manage China ties in 'predictable' way: minister

Trade chief O'Connor holds out hope for India's return to RCEP deal

New Zealand's minister for trade and export growth, Damien O'Connor, speaks to Nikkei Asia during an online interview on May 21. (Photo by Koji Uema)

TOKYO -- New Zealand's minister for trade and export growth aims to build on his country's business with its No. 1 partner, China, while reserving the right to address concerns at the appropriate time and place.

The relationship with China is "one of our most significant," Damien O'Connor stressed in an interview with Nikkei Asia on Friday, in conjunction with an appearance at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference.

He noted that New Zealand had enjoyed huge benefits from the free trade agreement it signed with China in 2008. But Wellington has also raised eyebrows across its Five Eyes intelligence partners -- the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia -- for its reluctance to present a united front on issues including human rights in China.

O'Connor said there will be some points of "difference" that New Zealand will "raise with China in a predictable way."

"They appreciate our position on these," he said of Beijing. Meanwhile, "the areas where we agreed, the value of our trade agreements, and our interactions culturally -- those things will be built on."

He said New Zealand would leave "the door open for other issues which will be addressed in the appropriate forum."

O'Connor also said that "we don't want to conflate the values of our trading arrangements ... with other issues we will raise and continue to raise with China."

Asked about the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal -- which New Zealand sealed late last year with China and 13 other economies -- O'Connor suggested it was more than simply the planet's biggest trading bloc.

"We believe in the NZ$2 billion [it promises to bring] to our economy, which is quite significant for a small country like ours, but more importantly its certainty and message to the rest of the world" as a symbol of free trade.

Touching on India, which participated in the RCEP talks but pulled out at the last minute, O'Connor said he was "disappointed" by that decision but emphasized that participants "still have left the door open for India."

A door that remains mostly closed is the border to New Zealand itself, due to COVID-19. Tight travel restrictions and domestic lockdown policies helped the country weather the pandemic much better than most. "Those decisions have proved to be the right decisions," O'Connor said, adding that the government sought "the best scientific advice we could."

But while the economy has almost returned to the pre-pandemic level, the minister raised two key sectors -- travel and education -- that are still suffering due to the border closure.

New Zealand did open up a quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia in April, and O'Connor said he hoped this was just the beginning.

"We are hoping that we can open up [the border to other countries] as quickly as possible, because our industries are suffering."

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