New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has emphasised the importance of strong ties with China during a whirlwind trip to Beijing, while Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “mutual trust” between the two countries. Ardern met Xi at the Great Hall of the People on Monday, where she also had a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang during the brief visit – her first to China since she was elected prime minister in late 2017. According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, Xi told Ardern that New Zealand had always been at the forefront among Western countries in establishing strong ties with China. “China has always treated New Zealand as a sincere friend and a cooperation partner,” Xi was quoted as saying. “Currently, there are some new developments in the bilateral ties. Both sides need to hold on to the principle of mutual trust and mutual benefits to further advance our relations.” Xi also called on New Zealand to actively participate in Beijing’s trade and infrastructure scheme, the “Belt and Road Initiative” , and sought cooperation on issues such as climate change and promoting sustainable development in the Pacific island nations. In her meeting with Premier Li, Ardern said her visit – which was shortened to a day of meetings because of the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch – “underlies the importance that we place on our relationship with China”. “It is one of our most important and far-reaching relationships … we are committed to advancing our ties,” Ardern said. Li told Ardern that China also attached great importance to its relations with New Zealand and he hoped companies from both countries could enjoy a “fair and transparent” environment for business and investment – apparently a veiled reference to New Zealand’s stance on Chinese telecoms firm Huawei Technologies. Ardern and Li also witnessed the signing of agreements on eliminating double taxation and tax avoidance, and on increasing cooperation in agriculture, finance, science and technology. The New Zealand prime minister said she also discussed with Li the upgrading of the two nations’ free-trade agreement. “We discussed the FTA upgrade and agreed to hold the next round of negotiations soon and to make joint efforts towards reaching an agreement as soon as possible,” Ardern was quoted as saying by New Zealand television network TVNZ. How spies help New Zealand stay friendly with China New Zealand’s exports to China have quadrupled since the free-trade deal took effect in 2008. China is the country’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade valued at more than NZ$28 billion (US$19 billion) last year, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. According to Xinhua, both Xi and Li also expressed their condolences over the terror attack in Christchurch on March 15, when a gunman killed 50 people in shootings at two mosques. Huawei was also among the main agenda items in Ardern’s meeting with Xi, according to New Zealand media. Relations between Beijing and Wellington took a hit last year after New Zealand’s intelligence services blocked Huawei from providing 5G technology to local telecoms company Spark. New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, along with the United States, Australia, Britain and Canada. The US has pressured allies to ban Huawei on security grounds, which the US and Australia did last year. Speaking to New Zealand media earlier, Ardern said she intended to “explain the process” about the Huawei decision in her meetings with the Chinese leaders. “I have seen reporting that Huawei is banned. That’s just not true. Obviously we have Huawei products in New Zealand,” she said, according to TVNZ. “It will be helpful for me to explain the process and the fact there has been some misreporting around the way it works.” Ardern said that New Zealand had a “very different” framework to the other Five Eyes members. Trade and Xinjiang on the agenda for New Zealand leader Ardern in China “New Zealand makes its decision independently … I’ve not been directly approached or lobbied by anyone, but even if we were, it would make no difference to our independent process,” she said. Before her visit, human rights groups urged Ardern to raise concerns about the treatment of Uygur Muslims in China’s far western Xinjiang region. Rights experts have estimated more than 1 million Uygurs have been held in mass internment camps for political indoctrination, but Beijing has described the facilities as “vocational training centres”. Xu Liping, a professor at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that New Zealand remained one of China’s most trusted economic partners among Western countries, despite the recent tensions. “New Zealand should know how to balance its relations with China and with the West, to remain neutral on issues like Huawei and Xinjiang, instead of siding with the West,” Xu said.