New Zealand has pushed back against China’s opposition to its AUKUS involvement during “very convivial” talks between foreign ministers.

Winston Peters hosted Wang Yi in Wellington Monday, the first stop on the Chinese foreign minister’s trans-Tasman diplomatic tour this week.

Wide-ranging talks touched on trade, security, China’s engagement in the Pacific, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts.

They also resolved that Prime Minister Chris Luxon would visit this year, following a trade mission led by minister Todd McClay in May.

The diplomatic visit comes at a delicate time.

The NZ government has tilted closer to United States and Australian defence policy since taking office in October, and is exploring associate membership of the AUKUS defence pact.

China views AUKUS as a “path of error and danger”, with China-aligned media outlet Global Times calling it as an “offensive war-fighting alliance against China” in a report.

Peters made clear to Wang that NZ would choose its alignment on its terms.

“He did raise AUKUS with me and I pointed out the right of countries to organise their defence arrangements,” Peters said in a round table interview with journalists including AAP.

“In the conversation of his concern about the AUKUS arrangement, I did put to them, ‘Well you do not think we just have imaginary concerns do you?’

“It was just a matter of making it very certain that he understood that we did not have imaginary concerns about long term security.”
NZ is pursuing an AUKUS “pillar two” tie-up focused on sharing military technology with Australia, the U.S and United Kingdom.

In doing so, some commentators have suggested NZ could be putting its generally warm relationship with Beijing at risk.

New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a bilateral trade deal with China, in 2008, and extended that partnership in 2014, to great economic benefit.

Peters said he “did not believe it risks in any way our most important trading relationship”.

“Countries are entitled to make up their minds about their defence interests or their security interests, and to think otherwise is to live in some imaginary environment, previously described by Prime Minister (Helen Clark) as a benign strategic environment.

“Who on Earth believes that now?”

Peters, who at 78 is beginning his third stint as foreign minister, made clear New Zealand’s objections to a range of matters, including Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and “increased tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait”.

He also encouraged China to “respect agreements” which recognise Australia and NZ as security partners of choice for Pacific Islands Forum nations “that need to be honoured”.

“He demonstrated that he was aware of that arrangement. I can’t say any further than that,” Peters said.

Despite the points of difference, Peters described the engagement as warm and frank.

He said he hoped for a fresh upgrading of its free trade agreement and increased two-way engagement, including the restoration of Chinese international students to pre-pandemic levels.

Wang described Peters as an “old friend” and bilateral ties as “enjoying sound and steady growth”.

“It was very convivial, very friendly,” Peters said.

“He invited me to come to China. (Trade Minister) Todd McClay is going next month, the prime minister not long after that, and me later on in the year,” he said.

Peters said the pair might conduct their diplomacy in a more old-school fashion on their next meeting.