Beijing is attempting to undermine the close relationship between Australia and New Zealand amid growing tensions in the Asia Pacific, Scott Morrison has warned.
Following talks with his New Zealand counterpart on Monday, the Australian prime minister said there were those “far from here” who were trying to weaken the security partnership between Canberra and Wellington.
Morrison insisted they would not succeed, adding that Australia and New Zealand would never trade their sovereignty or values.
“I have no doubt there will be those who will seek to undermine Australia and New Zealand’s security by seeking to create points of difference which are not there,” said Morrison.
He was answering a question about whether Australia or its Five Eyes intelligence partners — US, Canada, New Zealand and UK — could depend on Wellington.
However, Morrison chose not to name China directly when asked which forces “far from here” were attempting to divide the allies.
Relations between Canberra and Wellington have been strained over the best way to respond to China, which has been criticised for its aggressive foreign policy and accused of trampling human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
It comes amid a bitter diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Canberra, which prompted China to impose tariffs and other restrictions on billions of dollars of Australian imports.
Last month Wellington resisted efforts by Canberra to expand the role of the Five Eyes beyond intelligence to co-ordinating diplomatic messaging on China. That followed a suggestion by New Zealand’s trade minister in January that Canberra should follow Wellington’s example and show “respect” and “more diplomacy” when dealing with Beijing.
New Zealand has also been accused of cosying up to China and putting economic considerations above human rights concerns.
But following talks in Queenstown, both leaders presented a united front when asked about each countries’ China policies. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, said there was no differences between Wellington and Canberra’s position on the need to maintain a very strong and principled perspective on issues around trade or human rights.
“You will see that Australia and New Zealand have broadly been positioned in exactly the same place on these issues consistently,” said Ardern. “When it comes to the matter of Five Eyes we remain a committed member. That is not in question, not in doubt.”
Analysts said there was clearly an attempt to avoid adding to the perception that there was a big difference of opinion between how Australia and New Zealand confronted a rising China.
“The prime ministers were definitely singing from the same hymn sheet,” said David Capie from Victoria University in Wellington. “I think there are real differences, more in tone and approach than substance, but they’re not as big as some of the more hysterical analysis would have you believe.”
A joint statement expressed concern over continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea, as well as crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Richard McGregor, analyst at the Lowy Institute, said the statement on China was frank and it was hard to see anything that had been left out in deference to Beijing.
“There is no doubt that there have been tensions between Australia and NZ over China,” he said. “But the two leaders’ meeting, judging from their joint statement, has clearly lowered the temperature for the time being.”