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New Zealand should always 'speak its mind' to China, former prime minister says

Key Points
  • New Zealand's relationship with China had become "too transactional" in recent years, but it needs to be able to always raise concerns with Asia's superpower, according to former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
  • "Before the government of Jacinda Ardern, the relationship had probably become rather too transactional, very focused on material benefit," Clark said Friday.
  • Ties between Wellington and Beijing were strained after Beijing's tech giant Huawei was temporarily banned from participating in the country's rollout of 5G.
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NZ needs a 'broad basket' of trading partners: Former prime minister

New Zealand's relationship with China had become "too transactional" in recent years, but it needs to be able to raise concerns with Asia's superpower, according to former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Speaking to CNBC at the Asian Development Bank's annual meeting in Fiji, Clark was reflecting on how New Zealand-China relations had become strained after Chinese tech giant Huawei was temporarily banned from participating in the country's rollout of 5G — a new generation of mobile network that's set to bring about a variety of tech innovations.

"Before the government of (current Prime Minister) Jacinda Ardern, the relationship had probably become rather too transactional, very focused on material benefit," Clark said in a Friday interview with CNBC at the Asian Development Bank's annual meeting in Fiji.

During her tenure leading the country, from 1999 to 2008, she said she was able to broach tough subjects with Beijing when visiting the country — her administration "always kept the space where we could raise issues of concern."

"A small Western democracy has to be able to raise those issues, and of course the Chinese will respond, and there will be a robust response," she told CNBC. "But you never want to limit your freedom as a country to be able to raise issues that are on your mind."

Clark emphasized the need for New Zealand to keep its foreign policy position — which she described as "very much of a small country with its own values that will speak its mind when it needs to" — in the "China relationship story."

"When (New Zealand) speaks, no one thinks: 'Who are they speaking for?' No. New Zealand speaks for itself," Clark said.

Helen Clark reviews a guard of honor during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on April 7, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Andrew Wong | Getty Images
Trade negotiations may not be a 'quick story'

On the trade front, Clark said it is "incredibly important for New Zealand to keep a very broad basket of trading relationships" so it does not become "overly dependent on any country, regardless of who it is."

China is currently New Zealand's top export partner and accounts for a significant stake in the economy.

New Zealand's sales of goods and services to Beijing in 2018 amounted to $11.21 billion — more than that of neighboring Australia.

Wellington and Beijing are currently in negotiations to update their bilateral free trade agreement signed in 2008. According to Clark, those talks "may not be a quick story."

"It's always nice to have agreements upgraded, but it's a question of who wants what," she said. "There may well be bottom lines that New Zealand can't accommodate, and there may be bottom lines China can't accommodate."

"I don't think these things should be rushed, just let them take their course, and if a better deal can be negotiated, great," Clark added. "If it can't, put it on hold and look at it again later."