Peters backs corruption drive, avoids criticism during China meeting

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters speaks to Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker at the Apec summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has met with his Chinese counterpart, pledging to help track down escaped suspects of corruption while failing to raise his pre-election concerns about the country’s growing influence in New Zealand.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says an extradition treaty with the country was “not something on my agenda”, citing concerns with the country’s use of the death penalty.

Peters, a vocal critic of China in the past, met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Apec summit on Saturday.

A report on the meeting by China’s state news agency Xinhua said Peters pledged to work with China on tracking down corruption suspects who had fled the country, promising New Zealand would not be a "safe haven".

Wang told Peters that China was willing to “strengthen cooperation in such areas as law enforcement, security and defense”, according to Xinhua.

In May, China released a list of its top 22 “most wanted” corruption suspects, including four reported to live in Auckland. New Zealand is believed to be a popular destination in part because it lacks a formal extradition treaty with China.

Speaking to media in Manila, Peters said the pair had discussed precedents set in a previous case where China sought extradition, and New Zealand agreed on the condition the suspect would not be executed.

“They understood that, and I can see that because of our rule of law and our belief against the capital punishment provisions, that will be a serious precedent for the future.”

Peters said Wang did not raise the specific issue of an extradition treaty, but there was a mutual understanding of the role New Zealand could play.

“You’ve got to remember that when the president [Xi Jinping] came to power the first priority he had was to end corruption in China, and he’s trying to end it from people who are behaving corruptly in China and seeking domicile and safe haven in New Zealand.

“I think it’s fair enough for us to cooperate with them, providing of course that they don’t end up being executed as a consequence.”

The previous National government had said earlier in the year a formal extradition treaty was still “a matter for discussion”.

However, Ardern said a treaty was “not something on my agenda”, reiterating New Zealand’s consistent opposition to the use of capital punishment.

“As in any relationship you can work closely with one another, have a strong engagement but also be able to be in a position where you advocate on areas where you disagree, and that’s an area where we do disagree.”

South China Sea

Another area of potential disagreement relates to China’s activities in the South China Sea, set to be a significant topic of discussion at EAS: US President Donald Trump has offered to mediate between those contesting the Asian superpower’s claims to the area of water.

Ardern is meeting with Chinese Premier Le Keqiang on Monday, and said the issue was likely to come up.

“Everyone in the region is interested in the issue - when it comes to the South China Sea, New Zealand’s opposition is very straightforward. Our view is that it’s incumbent on all parties to ensure they maintain international rule of law, and that is what New Zealand will continue to promote.”

Peters said the issue of the South China Sea did not come up in his meeting with Wang, although there were more general discussions about the international rule of law “and the law of
the sea and international maritime rules that we seriously subscribe to”.

“He understood what our position was, yes.”

No Peters push on Chinese influence

In the lead-up to the election, Peters raised concerns about Chinese influence in New Zealand following Newsroom’s investigation into National MP Dr Jian Yang and his links to Chinese military intelligence, and a report from New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady into China’s political influence in New Zealand.

However, Peters said he did not raise the issue with Wang, blaming previous governments for not taking action.

“The issue of the Chinese serious economic influence in New Zealand, that owes a lot to our lack of getting fair trade, better trade deals elsewhere as well.

“You can’t be blaming just one party for being successful in its engagement with New Zealand: when I kind of think if we go back 20 years we could have worked a darn sight harder in many other areas in the world to get balanced trade, this imbalance with China would not be as pronounced as it is.”

Peters said he had never wanted an inquiry into China’s influence in New Zealand.

“I raised two things, I said the fact the Australians had expressed serious concern and that this was, in terms of the Brady report, a highly internationally recognised thesis and finding - I didn't ask for a full-scale public inquiry and I’m not asking for one now.”

However, a press release issued by Peters on September 19, titled "China’s Growing Control in New Zealand Must Be Investigated", quoted Brady as saying “a special commission was needed to investigate China’s impact on our democracy”.

“China is quietly starting to dominate the lives of New Zealanders and clearly our economic direction – National must explain,” Peters said.