The New Zealand and Australian prime ministers, Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison, have met in Queenstown on Sunday, their first talks in person since Covid-19 closed borders in 2020.
Over the past year the relationship between the two countries has been strained by conflict over Australia’s “501” deportation policy, and differing approaches to China. Formal talks between the two prime ministers will begin on Monday.
Morrison was greeted by a powhiri – a traditional Māori ceremony, which included a New Zealand representative singing Waltzing Matilda in Māori .
On Saturday, the New Zealand government confirmed that it would become a third party to a trade dispute between Australia and China on barley tariffs.
In May 2020, China placed punitive 80% tariffs on barley imports from Australia after the government in Canberra publicly backed the call for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus. In December, Australia took its case against China to the WTO.
The New Zealand trade minister, Damien O’Connor, confirmed that New Zealand would be joining the dispute as a third party – a step it routinely takes when it has commercial or legal interests connected to a dispute.
In a televised interview on Saturday morning, he said the international rules-based trading system was “the only way a small trading nation like New Zealand can ensure a fair and level playing field”.
O’Connor said: “New Zealand was not asked to join as a third party, however we have been a third party in over 60 WTO cases since 1995 and it’s not unusual for us to join actions, disputes when we see challenges to international trade rules.”
The move comes as Australia has become embroiled in a deepening trade war with China – a conflict that New Zealand has been watching closely from the sidelines. Like Australia it is highly dependent on China for trade, and the New Zealand foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has recently called on exporters to diversify so they could survive a “storm” of anger from Beijing.
“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she told the Guardian in an interview in May.
“The signal I’m sending to exporters is that they need to think about diversification in this context … and the buffering aspects of if something significant happened with China. Would they be able to withstand the impact?” she asked.
China accounts for nearly 30% of New Zealand exports – more than its next three largest trading partners combined.