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Chinese Premier Li begins visits to New Zealand, Australia

Chinese Premier Li begins visits to New Zealand, Australia
Chinese Premier Li begins visits to New Zealand, Australia

 


Chinese Premier Li Qiang touted trade and “friendship” as he began a tour of New Zealand and Australia on Thursday, a rare visit that comes as both hosts grapple with the influence of Beijing in the Pacific.

Just behind President Xi Jinping in China's political hierarchy, Li is the highest-ranking figure to have held an official position in either country since 2017.

Over six days, Mr. Li will set foot in five different cities, meet two prime ministers, speak with a series of business leaders and engage in China's signature “Panda diplomacy.”

A noisy crowd greeted Li as his motorcade entered the Intercontinental Hotel in the heart of New Zealand's capital Wellington.

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Enthusiastic supporters beat drums and held banners, while a small group of screaming protesters climbed up to take a look at his car.

Shortly after landing, Li issued a statement highlighting the “fruitful results” arising from his trade relations with China.

Li said he sought to renew China's “traditional friendship” with New Zealand, hinting at opportunities to strengthen trade, tourism and investment.

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China's relations with the two hosts have changed dramatically in the seven years since Li's predecessor toured the West Indies.

New Zealand, long considered one of China's closest partners in the region, has become increasingly bold in its criticism of Beijing's role in the South Pacific.

Meanwhile, Australia has moved closer to the United States in response to China's growing military power.

But one constant remains: China remains, by far, Australia and New Zealand's largest export market.

Geopolitical analyst Geoffrey Miller told AFP that Li's visit carried a not-so-subtle message: “Don't put all this at risk.”

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New Zealand is considering whether it should play a limited role in the AUKUS security agreement between Washington, London and Canberra, a deal seen as key to countering China's military expansion.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Winston Peters denounced China's attempts to strengthen its security footprint in the Pacific islands.

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Miller, of Victoria University of Wellington, said Li would dangle commercial “carrots” to try to soften that position.

Beijing would likely offer incentives to show New Zealand “what it could lose” if it agreed to join AUKUS in developing defense technology, he said.

“China is aware that no final decision has been made, so there is an opportunity to make New Zealand understand the weight of this decision.”

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New Zealand was one of the first developed countries to strike a free trade deal with Beijing and today almost a third of its merchandise exports go to China.

Chinese consumers have a voracious appetite, particularly for premium New Zealand meat, dairy and wine.

Li will take off on Saturday morning from New Zealand's commercial hub of Auckland, bound for Adelaide in southern Australia.

Situated on the gateway to the famous Barossa wine region, Adelaide is the hometown of Foreign Minister Penny Wong, who is credited with helping stabilize relations between Canberra and Beijing.

The Australian wine was among a series of products effectively banned from entering China at the height of a rancorous trade dispute that lasted years and only recently began to ease.

Although exports of wine, coal, timber, barley and beef have largely recovered, trade barriers remain for Australian rock lobster.

One of Li's first stops will be Adelaide Zoo, widely seen as a sign that giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who have been on loan there from China since 2009, will extend their stay overseas.

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