When Mahuta took the podium alongside her Australian counterpart Marise Payne, who had flown over to Wellington just days after the trans-Tasman bubble opened, China was very much the dragon in the building.
Though New Zealand and Australia have long been friends and allies, and are both members of the Five Eyes, they do not always agree on China.
The podium was all smiles, glossing over recent trans-Tasman squabbles: Peter Dutton calling 501 deportees “trash” and Australia throwing blame for terror suspect Suhayra Aden squarely on New Zealand’s lap.
Concerns are taken seriously by Australia, according to its foreign minister, who reiterated the lines provided by the two prime ministers regarding Aden in mid-February.
“We both now acknowledge that the case has a number of complexities, and that we will work through those issues in the spirit of this important and deeper bilateral relationship, the closest of bilateral relationships, particularly in relation to matters concerning children.”
The 501s a perennial topic for trans-Tasman visits, but Mahuta said New Zealand had “moved on” from Dutton’s “trash” comments and “the things that needed to be said were said at the time”.
“We continue to raise our concerns around the issue of deportations and the impact that it has on New Zealand”, she said, “and we’ve reflected time again … the level of concern”.
There’s been a flurry in some international media over comments from Mahuta about New Zealand being “uncomfortable” with the remit of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance being expanded for sending out messages on the likes of human rights.
British media climbed into her comments, interpreting them as New Zealand wanting to exit the decades’ long alliance.
Five Eyes on China cut to four as New Zealand puts trade first was an article in The Times.
The Telegraph ran New Zealand pushes aside Five Eyes to pursue closer ties with China.
And another one calling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “the West’s woke weak link”.
Not the case, clarified Mahuta at the media conference.
“The Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework and it’s not necessary all the time on every issue, to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues and the Human Rights space, for example.”
New Zealand “values” the Five Eyes relationship, she said, and receive “significant benefits … but whether or not that framework needs to be invoked every time on every issue, especially in the human rights space, is something that we have expressed further views about”.
National Party foreign spokesperson and former minister Gerry Brownlee, said that was the right approach as the Five Eyes “is not our primary geopolitical platform for the way in which we speak of other countries”.
Payne said some Five Eyes matters did have to be dealt with behind closed doors, but some had been dealt with “openly and publicly … because we do share as liberal democracies, common values and approaches to so many of the international issues which have allowed us to deepen our cooperation through those alliances”.
That’s happened through what is “clearly an era of greater strategic competition, particularly in the Indo-Pacific”, she said.
“Now, my view is that countries will choose to address issues of concerns in whichever forum they themselves determine appropriate and consistent with their respective national interest.
“But our respect for each other: Australia, the United States, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada, is enduring and continuing and one which we particularly in Australia value enormously,” Payne told reporters.
Australia and China have been at loggerheads over the imposition of tariffs by China, among other issues.
Tensions exploded further when a Chinese foreign official tweeted with a fake photo of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat, in reference to the Australian war crimes report, enraging Australian PM Scott Morrison.
Payne described the relationship as “complex but comprehensive and important”, saying Australia pursues cooperation when it was in its interests to do so.
“But we also have to acknowledge that China’s outlook, the nature of China’s external engagement, both in our region and globally has changed in recent years.
“And an enduring partnership requires us to adapt to those new realities, to talk with each other and what we have offered is clarity and consistency and confidence,” Payne said.
Would Australia like to see New Zealand be more forceful in its messaging about China?
One thing she had learnt in the role, Payne replied, was “not to give advice to other countries”.
Brownlee said when it came to China, Australia’s in a different position to New Zealand.
“They have had some sanctions put on some of their export products, but you’ve got to bear in mind China is about 60 percent dependent on Australia for iron ore, so there is a massive difference between us and Australia, as far as the export relationship is with a country like China.”
Australian media are reporting plans for Morrison to visit New Zealand in the next few weeks; there is no confirmation from New Zealand officials but the foreign ministers said their meeting had laid the groundwork for a leaders’ meeting.