The leaders of Australia and New Zealand are set to hold their first face-to-face talks since the coronavirus pandemic began, with China’s growing regional influence and Canberra’s controversial deportation policy likely to top the agenda.
The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison touched down in the New Zealand resort of Queenstown for the overnight visit on Sunday, greeting his counterpart Jacinda Ardern with a traditional Maori hongi, in which the pair pressed their noses together.
Morrison is the first world leader to visit New Zealand since both countries shut their borders last year to contain the virus.
The neighbours opened a quarantine-free travel bubble last month, although a recent outbreak of the virus in Melbourne has prompted New Zealand to suspend the travel bubble with Australia’s Victoria state.
Dennis Shanahan, national editor of The Australian newspaper, said China’s growing influence in the region was the top issue for the talks.
“The issue has been forced on the Australian and New Zealand leaders by the fact that China’s influence and interference in the region has grown. But there’s clear differences between the Australian and New Zealand sides on the attitude to take towards China,” he said from Canberra.
Australia’s relationship with China has deteriorated significantly over the past year, with Beijing blocking some Australian exports after Canberra excluded China-based telecommunications company Huawei from its 5G phone network and called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
Australia has taken China’s move to ban its barley exports to the World Trade Organization, which on Friday said it would establish a dispute settlement panel to look into the row.
New Zealand, on the other hand, has taken a more accommodating approach towards China, with the two countries upgrading their free trade agreement earlier this year and New Zealand’s trade minister suggesting the Morrison government show China more “respect” to obtain similar benefits.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s top diplomat also said last month that Wellington was “uncomfortable” with expanding the role of the Five Eyes, a post-war intelligence grouping that also includes Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. The comment raised speculation that New Zealand did not back the group’s recent criticisms of Beijing.
“New Zealand has been much less affected by Chinese pressure than Australia, and is therefore much more likely to call on Australia publicly to take a softer line towards China,” said Shanahan.
“But the view in Australia is that we cannot afford to do that, and the Australian government does not want a gap to appear between Australia and New Zealand because of Chinese pressure,” he added.
Also looming large over the talks is Canberra’s policy of deporting foreigners who are convicted of crimes, even if they have lived in Australia all of their lives.
The policy, which Australia Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has described as “taking the trash out”, has affected New Zealand disproportionately. In recent years, Australia has deported hundreds of people to the neighbouring country, including a 15-year-old boy in March.
Shanahan said an Australian compromise on the deportation issue could help it win New Zealand’s backing on its complaint against China at the WTO.
But despite the multiple areas of friction, both leaders have touted their bilateral bond ahead of the talks.
Ardern said earlier this month that the relationship with Australia was New Zealand’s “closest and most important”, while Morrison said: “Australia and New Zealand are family – we share deep historical bonds of friendship, trust and the Anzac spirit.”