Scott Morrison has accused outside influences of attempting to divide Australia and New Zealand in the Indo-Pacific, in pointed comments aimed at China.
The Prime Minister met with NZ counterpart Jacinda Ardern in Queenstown on Monday, with the bitter Australia-China trade dispute dominating their wide-ranging discussions.
Speaking alongside Ms Ardern, Mr Morrison said the Indo-Pacific was increasingly defined by strategic competition between the US and China but played down the prospect of war in the region.
“Of course, the world is uncertain. Of course, the world has risks of conflict and tension,” he said.
“We acknowledge the realities of strategic competition, but do not accept as any foregone conclusions where that competition may lead to.”
New Zealand updated its Free Trade Agreement with China in February, as the country’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor urged Australia to “show respect, (and) a little more diplomacy” towards Beijing.
The development came as tensions between China and Australia intensified after Beijing slapped trade sanctions on a range of Australian products, seemingly in response to the federal government’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
But Mr Morrison denied New Zealand had undermined the trans-Tasman relationship, insisting “neither of us would ever trade our sovereignty or trade our values”.
“As great partners, friends, allies and deep family, there will be those far from here who would who would seek to divide us. They will not succeed,” he said.
“I have no doubt there will be those who would seek to undermine Australia and New Zealand’s security by seeking to create points of difference, which are not there.”
Ms Ardern also pushed back on claims New Zealand had taken a soft stance on the Indo-Pacific, rejecting a journalist’s suggestion Wellington had “cozied up” to Beijing.
“(I) strongly refute the assertion that we are doing anything other than maintaining a very principled position on human rights issues, on trade issues, as they relate to China,” she said.
“In fact, I think you’ll find very little difference in many of the messages that we’ve been sending relative to Australia.”
Ms Ardern said New Zealand’s commitment to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – also including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US – was “not in question, not in doubt”.
Her comments came weeks after the Biden administration pledged not to leave Australia “alone on the pitch” as it faced economic coercion from Beijing.
“We have each other’s backs so we can face threats and challenges from a position of collective strength,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Earlier, Australia welcomed New Zealand’s offer to act as a third-party mediator in the trade stoush, which has been taken to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“New Zealand is participating in this dispute as a third party because it raises systemic issues of importance to the effective functioning of the multilateral rules-based trading system,” Mr O’Connor said in a statement.
“New Zealand upholds international rules and norms, so ensuring international trade rules are fairly applied by others is important to us and our exporters.”
The Australian government, which has accused China of violating its WTO obligations, said Mr O’Connor’s comments were positive news as it sought to restart dialogue with Beijing.
“We welcome New Zealand’s support for the rules-based trading system,” Trade Minister Dan Tehan said in a statement.
Mr O’Connor’s comments were a slight shift in rhetoric after his February remarks.
He claimed Australia “too could hopefully be in a similar situation” to New Zealand if it changed its stance on Beijing.
But he later called Mr Tehan to clarify “we do not speak for Australia on this or any other matter”.