This Week in Asia

Former New Zealand prime minister Jenny Shipley has distanced herself from a controversial op-ed published in China's People's Daily, saying the state-run newspaper constructed it from an interview she did during a visit to China last December.

Published on Monday, the piece - which ran using Shipley's byline - commended China's economic growth and international engagement, including President Xi Jinping's infrastructure investment strategy, known as the "Belt and Road Initiative". "We should learn to listen to China," it said.

The piece, which came amid heightened bilateral tensions over New Zealand's move to block Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from a nationwide 5G roll-out over "significant national security concerns", was criticised by current Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

He said Shipley - who was premier from 1997 to 1999, and fired Peters as treasurer and deputy prime minister in 1998 - was "selling out New Zealand's interests".

The South China Morning Post attempted to contact Shipley on Wednesday through the New Zealand China Council, where she is an executive board member, but council executive director Stephen Jacobi said she was not presently responding to media queries.

CNN quoted Shipley on Tuesday as saying she had not written the op-ed, and it was based on an interview she had given to another Chinese state-run newspaper when she visited the country last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up.

Separately, she told the New Zealand Herald: "It is important for the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister and others to understand that I would never think of getting into a public situation like this at such an important time for New Zealand's relationship.

Shipley was quoted in the People's Daily piece as saying: "We need to work with China globally to find ways to explore the future and move forward.

"The Belt and Road Initiative is one of the greatest ideas we've heard globally. It has the potential to create the next wave of economic growth."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the People's Daily piece was quite blatantly an interview turned into a column. Photo: New Zealand Herald

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was surprised to hear about the incident.

"It's quite blatantly an interview turned into a column, which I haven't seen before," she told Radio New Zealand.

Yik Chan Chin, lecturer in media and communication at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, declined to comment directly on what People's Daily did, but said the action taken by Australia and New Zealand - both of which have China as their top trading partner - on Huawei was a focus of discussion in Chinese state media.

"A lot of coverage has cast doubt on the motivation behind New Zealand or Australia banning Huawei from being part of their 5G network, and on whether people truly believe Huawei has a political agenda," Chin said.

Chinese media coverage of the ban has largely focused on the positive, she said.

"They are trying to say 'Look, there are other countries which are happy to integrate Huawei technology'. The main argument is that Huawei is the best player in the market. They don't give much focus on whether Huawei has a close connection with the Chinese government or whether the government has a political agenda, but rather they focus on the company's capacity."

China-New Zealand relations are facing new opportunities for development, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. Photo: Kyodo

Ardern on Tuesday said the government had not made a final decision on Huawei's participation and it was up to local telco Spark to mitigate national security concerns over the use of its equipment.

She rejected suggestions New Zealand exports were facing delays entering China or that the country's officials were facing challenges obtaining Chinese visas. Her first official visit to Beijing has been delayed due to scheduling issues, and China last week decided to postpone a major tourism campaign days before its launch.

Ardern also said there would be no debate about trade minister David Parker accepting China's invitation to attend the second Belt and Road forum in April.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in a Tuesday press conference reaffirmed that maintaining a positive bilateral relationship is in the common interest of both countries, emphasising that China is willing to continue to develop the relationship on the basis of mutual respect and equality.

"Under the new situation, China-New Zealand relations are facing new opportunities for development," said Geng, noting that New Zealand had "long been at the forefront of developed countries in developing relations with China".

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who was fired from a post by Shipley during her time as premier, accused her of selling out New Zealand's interests. Photo: AFP

The recent speed bumps in the relationship have not had any impact on the bilateral trade relationship, according to Jacobi from the New Zealand China Council.

"It's clear that in the last few weeks we've had rather an up-and-down series of events, but it's important that people keep calm and avoid jumping to conclusions," he said.

In a survey conducted by the New Zealand China Council last year, 43 per cent of respondents said New Zealand's relationship with China was positive - a better response than when the same question was asked about the United States, Jacobi said - and only 14 per cent said it was negative.

Media coverage played an important role in public opinion, he said, but he believed the public could see through the hype, especially because of the strong economic benefits New Zealanders continue to observe from the relationship.

China has been New Zealand's top export market for the past five years, taking in over US$12 billion in New Zealand goods in 2017, while dairy from the country made up more than half of such products imported to China the previous year.

Chinese tourist arrivals to New Zealand came second only to Australia last year, with more than 450,000 visitors - nearly twice as many as from the US.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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