By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday she hoped to lead a trade mission to China once border settings are changed to allow travel to her country's biggest trading partner as it emerges from the pandemic.
Ardern said she had expressed her hopes to visit to China's President Xi Jinping during talks last month on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, which had been their first in-person meeting since 2018.
"I do hope to return to China in person when the settings allow, and I discussed with the President our ambition of taking a trade mission into China early next year - a plan that was welcomed by the President," Ardern told a meeting of the New Zealand-China Council in Auckland.
Ardern said New Zealand's trade and economic links with China have proven resilient, despite the challenges of COVID. Her comments came just two days after China announced it was dismantling key parts of a strict "zero-COVID" policy, in a much-needed move to give momentum to a flagging economy.
Delivering a speech marking 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Ardern said New Zealand's relationship with China was important but complex and evolving.
Ardern said "we continue to recognise that there are areas where China and New Zealand do not agree, where our interests or world view differ."
She added that in those areas where New Zealand and China disagreed her government remained willing to engage but would always advocate for New Zealand's interests and values, and speak out when needed.
"We do this predictably, consistently and respectfully," she said.
During the talks in Bangkok Ardern discussed bilateral relations and areas of co-operation with Xi, while also raising concerns about human rights and the Taiwan Strait.
New Zealand has long been seen as the moderate, even absent, voice on China in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, but it adopted a tougher tone this year after China and the Solomon Islands struck a security pact.
While Australia's relationship with China has deteriorated, New Zealand and China's interactions have remained largely cordial.
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)