Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison address China controversy: Neither of us would trade our sovereignty

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have played down their foreign policy differences and celebrated the “Anzac path” after meeting for bilateral talks in Queenstown.

At a joint media conference this afternoon, Ardern said it was good to meet face to face “and neither of us take that for granted”. She said it had been to the benefit of both countries that they worked together closely on Covid-19.

Ardern acknowledged the people of Victoria, who are in their fourth Covid lockdown, saying “we have absolute faith it’s a hurdle you’ll come out of.”

Ardern said the pair discussed climate change, trade and security and the rollout of vaccines to the Pacific, as well as managing the borders.

New Zealand is also hosting Apec this year – which will be held virtually – and she had invited Morrison to return to New Zealand for that.

She said they had also discussed deportations, and they would have differences of opinion from time to time – but the similarities were bigger.

Morrison said it was a privilege to be able to visit New Zealand, referring to the “ancient indigenous histories” of both countries.

He said that was even more important as both countries looked to steer through “uncharted waters” following Covid-19.

He said the relationship between himself and Ardern made negotiating issues easier. “We have pursued a very uniquely Anzac path through Covid-19. We must continue to pursue a very Anzac path through the other issues we face.”

He referred to regional security as one of those issues.

The two leaders had agreed to work together to ensure the Pacific Islands got the vaccinations they needed.

Morrison said the economies of New Zealand and Australia were fused more closely together than they had been, at least in his lifetime, because of Covid-19 – partly because of the travel bubble. “While the rest of the world is closed off to us.”

He said Australia would also support New Zealand over Apec – saying multilateralism in trade was a key for that even when the borders were closed.

Morrison, Ardern on China

Asked whether he believed New Zealand had sold its sovereignty to China, Morrison said “no”.

Both countries were trading countries: “Neither of us would trade our sovereignty or our values.”

Ardern said she had no detected any difference in the positions on trade or human rights between herself and Morrison. “I really push back on any suggestion we are not takinga strong stance on these issues.”

She said New Zealand remained very committed to Five Eyes.

Morrison said there were countries that might seek to undermine national security and try to divide the two countries by claiming there were “differences that are not there”, but on a wide range of issues Australia and New Zealand worked together.

He said the wide aim was a “free and open Indo-Pacific, a peaceful Indo-Pacific”.

“Of course the world is uncertain, of course the world has risks and tension, our goal is to mitigate that.”

Asked if New Zealand relied too heavily on Australia for defence and security, and that was why it was “soft on China”, Ardern said she had already strongly rejected the argument New Zealand was “soft” on China.

“On the question of whether we rely on others, we carry responsibility for ourselves to ensure adequate investment in our defence forces and we carry our weight in security and intelligence.”

However, she said there would also be reliance on others in defence, pointing to exercises such as search and rescue.

Morrison said the countries did have inter-operability in their defence forces, which meant they could act together around the world.

Asked if they would go along with an inquiry into finding the source of Covid-19 in China, Ardern said it was clear from the outset that the recent World Health Organisation Report was tranche one. “We have long supported and continue to do so the work the WHO is doing to try to find the source of the virus.”

She said the world needed to know how the virus originated to better prepare for future pandemics. Morrison said the appointment of former PM Helen Clark to chair that inquiry had pleased Australia.

“It’s important we understand this for global health. That’s why this process is so important and why it should not be impeded.”

Pacific travel bubble

On a Pacific-wide bubble, which would include the Pacific Islands, Ardern said both countries were keen to expand the bubble where it was safe to do so.

However, that would be a “very high bar”. Neither country wanted to give up its ‘safe’ status, and at least while vaccine take up was low that would not change.

“It is most likely to be our Pacific neighbours we both look to.”

Morrison agreed, stressing that safety was key. “We are very aware of the health risk for our Pacific family as well as in Australia and New Zealand.”

On whether the Christchurch terrorist should be deported to Australia, Ardern said that was a decision for the future and she would be guided by the community’s feelings.

She said there had not yet been any formal consultation on that as yet, but the informal feedback she had had was that he should serve out his sentence in New Zealand.

“At this stage, I’m not detecting any strong desire from the community for that to change.”

Asked about Suhayra Aden, a former Australian-NZ dual citizen alleged by Turkish authorities to be an Islamic State terrorist who was stripped of her citizenship by Australia, Morrison said he and Ardern had discussed the issue but he stood by Australia’s move.

“Australia’s rules, laws, regarding criminal acts by those who commit them in Australia in violation of our laws are deported.”

Ardern said Morrison was well aware of her view on the matter – having publicly criticised him in the past for it.

'Common threats'

Earlier, Morrison said New Zealand and Australia face “common threats” to the regional security of the Indo-Pacific region.

“We have some very serious times that we’re living in, not just from a health point of view but obviously from a regional security point of view,” Morrison said in his opening remarks at bilateral talks in Queenstown with Ardern.

“I really appreciate the direct personal relationship and dialogue we’ve had. That will only continue because we have common challenges. There are common threats.”

Morrison didn’t name China.

“All of us have a big stake in ensuring a world that favours freedom and a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“The broader issue of a free and open Indo-Pacific is something Australia and New Zealand feels very strongly about, and working with out like-minded partners all around the world – the US and the UK, across Europe, Japan, India.

“With those issues all on the table today, we should move on and get on with it.”

Ardern used her opening remarks to stress the closeness of the transtasman relationship.

“Your grandfather hailing from Ashburton, my great grandfather from Sydney, Clarke’s grandmother from Perth – when we talk about Australia and New Zealand being family, being whānau, we actually mean it quite literally as much as we mean it symbolically.”

She said how the region opens up to the world amid an ongoing pandemic would be a topic of discussion.

“The expectation of our people to maintain their safety but also for economic reasons to reopen to the world is a challenge we both face.

“And there’s no other leader in the world I can have that conversation with … we value so much our ability to work through those problems together.”

Morrison and Ardern had free and frank one-on-one talks before the bilateral meeting, which includes a number of officials from both sides.

Wreath-laying ceremony

This morning, Morrison, his wife Jenny, Ardern and Clark Gayford attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arrowtown War Memorial.

Morrison was asked whether the transtasman relationship was at a low ebb, and replied: “No, not at all.”

Last night, 60 Minutes Australia portrayed New Zealand as putting business ahead of decency in its stance on China, which has imposed trade tariffs that have cost Australia at least $49 billion.

Ardern used her media round this morning to point out the joint statements that New Zealand and Australia had issued criticising China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims and its the controversial changes it made to Hong Kong’s electoral system.

She also stressed New Zealand’s decision to be a third party to an Australia-China trade dispute over barley.

Last night Ardern told a business reception about the importance of New Zealand’s “family ties” with Australia to counter China’s increasing influence in the Pacific.

“In this increasingly complex geo-strategic environment, family is incredibly important, and Australia, you are family.”

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