Australia and New Zealand unite over China human rights issues

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hold a joint press conference at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Australia and New Zealand on Monday expressed grave concerns over developments in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in the Xinjiang province of China, as the two nations sought get in lockstep over their biggest trading partner.

In the first face-to-face meeting between heads of both countries in over 15 months, Australia and New Zealand presented a united front on China.

Quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand began last month after both nations controlled the spread of COVID-19, allowing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to visit New Zealand.

Talks were focused among other things on China, with Australia currently at loggerheads with Beijing while New Zealand taking a more accommodating approach, leading to suggestions by political commentators and the media that Wellington was not taking a strong stance on China’s human rights’ issues.

Ardern rejected this, saying New Zealand and Australia had similar positions on issues such as trade and human rights.

“You’ll see Australia and New Zealand have broadly been positioned in exactly the same place on these issues consistently so I really push back on any suggestion that we are not taking a strong stance on these incredibly important issues,” she said in a joint press conference.

Morrison backed Ardern, saying Australia and New Zealand were trading nations, but neither would ever trade its sovereignty.

“I think as great partners, friends, allies and indeed family, there will be those far from here who would seek to divide us and they will not succeed…,” he said.

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In a joint statement both prime ministers expressed grave concerns over developments in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in the Xinjiang province of China, and called on Beijing to respect the human rights of the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities and to grant the United Nations and other independent observers unfettered access to the region.

Beijing has denied accusations of mass detentions of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and cracking down on democracy activists in Hong Kong.

China has in recent months moved to restrict imports of Australian products such as barley, wine and beef, with the World Trade Organisation saying last week it would establish a dispute settlement panel to resolve the barley row.

Ahead of Morrison’s visit, New Zealand said it would back Canberra in the spat.

New Zealand’s economic ties with China have been strengthening, with the two countries this year upgrading their free trade agreement.

New Zealand also said last month it was “uncomfortable” with expanding the role of the Five Eyes, a post-war intelligence grouping that also includes the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada. This raised speculation that Wellington did not back the group’s recent criticisms of Beijing.

“When it comes to the matter of Five Eyes, we remain a committed a member, that is not in question, not in doubt,” Ardern said.

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