BEIJING (Reuters) -China regards New Zealand as a key partner and has confidence in stable bilateral ties, China's top diplomat Wang Yi said on Friday, just as the South Pacific nation showed signs of taking a harder stance on China's presence in the region.
China and New Zealand have always respected and trusted each other, and bilateral ties have long been at the forefront of China's relations with developed Western countries, Wang told New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, according to a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry.
"China-New Zealand cooperation has great potential," Wang said.
Mahuta arrived in China on Wednesday for a four-day trip, the first by a New Zealand minister since 2019, with her trip seen paving the way for a future visit by Chris Hipkins who became prime minister in January after Jacinda Ardern resigned.
New Zealand and China's interactions have remained largely cordial, with the two sides upgrading their free trade pact last year. China remains New Zealand's largest trading partner.
But last year Ardern said New Zealand was "gravely" concerned about the possible militarisation of the Pacific after the Solomon Islands formed a security pact with China.
The Solomon Islands and China have consistently denied that their security partnership would allow a naval base. This week, the Solomon Islands said it had awarded a deal to a Chinese state company to upgrade a port in Honiara.
Ahead of her visit, Mahuta she said would advocate "for approaches and outcomes that reflect New Zealand's interests and values, including on human rights."
"I also intend to raise New Zealand's concerns about key regional and global security challenges, including the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine."
Wang told Mahuta that China will continue to play a constructive role in promoting political settlement of the Ukraine crisis, according to the foreign ministry statement.
China has long refrained from condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow refers to its actions as a "special military operation".
(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jonathan Oatis)