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Free trade deal also strategic, says PM

New Zealand Herald, Auckland

Free trade deal also strategic, says PM

1 April 2008

By Paula Oliver

New Zealand’s free trade agreement with China is about more than reducing tariffs - it is also a strategic move which acknowledges that the emerging superpower will become the world’s biggest economy, says Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Speaking shortly before she left yesterday on a trip which culminates with the signing of the historic trade deal on April 7, Helen Clark said it was in New Zealand’s interests to have a strong relationship with China.

She dismissed questions about whether the signing should be delayed given recent concerns about a Chinese crackdown on unrest in Tibet.

The Government is refusing to reveal details of the agreement until it is signed, but Helen Clark said it was "very significant" for New Zealand.

The deal will be put under a microscope when it is unveiled next week and while the Government is assured of National’s bipartisan support on the issue, it could yet face some awkward moments defending the deal in the face of attacks from other political parties.

Helen Clark was resolute yesterday that it was the right move.

"It’s well known that Chinese exports come into New Zealand with very few barriers at all, but the same is not true the other way around.

"Seen in the broader context, it’s a strategic agreement - it is acknowledging on our part that China will be, in my lifetime, the world’s biggest economy." She said the more the emerging superpower could be engaged with and drawn into an "international rules-based environment", the better for everyone.

The free trade agreement will go before a select committee before it is voted on in Parliament, and with National backing the deal there is no question it will pass.

But support from some of Parliament’s other parties is not so assured.

Trade Minister Phil Goff has been arranging briefings on the deal’s contents for other political parties, and among those spoken to have been United Future and New Zealand First.

United Future leader Peter Dunne has said he will vote for the deal but he turned down a trip to China to attend its signing.

All eyes are turning now to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters - who as Foreign Minister is in a unique situation - and yesterday he said he had received one briefing on the deal but had requested another.

He said his party’s position had always been that it did not see the wisdom of doing free trade agreements with low-wage economies.

"However, we are waiting for the detail on this one," he said. "I’ve had one briefing, I’ve asked for a more comprehensive one. I think the devil is in the detail in these things."

Mr Peters said he expected to receive that briefing in a matter of days.

The Greens have said they will oppose the deal.

The Prime Minister said she would raise human rights issues when she visited Beijing next week, and she fully appreciated and shared the concerns people had around human rights in China.

It was important, she said, to have a robust enough relationship with China to raise those sorts of issues when New Zealand wanted to.