China's premier meets New Zealand's leader amid 5G dispute

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged New Zealand to provide a "fair, transparent, convenient" investment environment in a meeting Monday with the country's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, that comes amid a dispute over use of Chinese telecoms equipment.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since New Zealand in November stopped mobile phone company Spark from using Huawei gear in its planned 5G upgrade because of security concerns.

In opening remarks at their meeting Monday in Beijing, Li did not mention Huawei directly but said China wanted improved relations that would serve the best interests of businesses on both sides.

"China ... is willing to, on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment, elevate mutual political trust with New Zealand, expand practical cooperation and increase personal exchanges," Li told Ardern at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the legislature in central Beijing, following a formal welcoming ceremony.

"And we hope that ... when each side's businesses invest in each other's businesses, they can enjoy a fair, transparent, convenient environment," Li said.

Ardern did not address investment issues in her opening remarks, but thanked Li for expressing China's condolences over the deadly shootings at mosques in the city of Christchurch. Her visit, during which she will also meet Xi Jinping, China's president and Communist Party leader, was cut back to one day following the March 15 shootings that killed 50 people.

However, Ardern said she still wanted to "visit Beijing at this time to underline the importance that we place on our relationship with China. It is one of our most important and far reaching relationships, a point I've made in my public speeches over the past year."

Following the meeting, the two leaders oversaw the signing of agreements on avoiding double taxation, agriculture, financial dialogue and science and research.

The determination by New Zealand's spy agency that Huawei's equipment posed a "significant network security risk" sparked deep indignation in China, where the company is considered a national champion.

That brought condemnations in China's state media and indications of economic retaliation. China is New Zealand's largest trading partner and a key customer for its dairy and other agricultural products. New Zealand's government says two-way trade between the sides more than tripled in the 10 years since they signed a free trade agreement in 2018.

Ardern said last month that no final decision has been made on whether Huawei equipment can be used in the country's slated 5G network.

Human Rights Watch had called on Ardern to raise concerns about reported Chinese government abuses of Muslims during her visit, although it wasn't clear if she planned to do so. The group said Ardern "spoke forcefully in defense of Muslims' rights" after the Christchurch attacks and should do so again in Beijing.

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