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Clark cautious on China deal

The Press, Christchurch

Clark cautious on China deal

26 March 2008

China is holding off giving final approval for a free-trade pact with New Zealand.

Prime Minister Helen Clark sounded a note of warning on the deal yesterday, less than two weeks before New Zealand’s biggest trade delegation leaves for Beijing.

The free-trade agreement (FTA) would be China’s first with a developed nation and comes amid mounting international criticism of its human rights record in Tibet, which has forced Clark to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

"There are still matters to be settled," she said.

"I don’t have any reason to think it won’t all come together but at this point I’m not ready to confirm it.

"Because of the very significant interest in New Zealand in the possibility of an FTA being concluded, we have had to advise people to make contingency arrangements."

Clark would not go into detail about what Beijing’s areas of concern were but she said it was not linked to Tibet.

Asked if there was a chance she would not go to Beijing, Clark said: "All the bookings are made.

"If there is an FTA to be concluded and signed, I would expect to be there.

"We are still talking some issues through. My hope is they can be clarified in the not too distant future."

Officials have said the FTA was scheduled to be signed on April 7, with the trade delegation departing on April 5.

Clark said it had been planned that a range of documents would be signed in Beijing in addition to the FTA, covering parallel issues such as labour and the environment.

"My understanding is there is substantial agreement on those," she said.

Although Clark did not refer to it directly, it is also understood there will be a statement on human rights.

"We know what our procedure is here. If a deal is concluded and everything is agreed on, then it can be signed. Multiple documents to be signed - you have labour, you have environment, you have an FTA," she said.

Asked if the Government had any fresh concerns about the Chinese response to unrest in Tibet, Clark said she had nothing to add since a statement made last week.

Parliament last week supported a Government statement of concern about the situation in Tibet that called on Chinese authorities to react "carefully and proportionately" to the recent protests.

Clark said yesterday that the FTA, removing tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade, would be China’s first with a fully developed country.

"It’s a first for them. It is certainly not a first for us. We go back 25 years with CER (closer economic relations with Australia). We have very clear templates, but it is a question of getting everything lined up so we are ready to roll," she said.

Trade and Enterprise has been responsible for rallying a big delegation of Kiwi business leaders to be in Beijing — about 150 people in all, including representatives of at least 73 companies.