Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers express serious concerns about human rights in China and the South China Sea

China on Monday (May 31) accused the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand of brutally interfering in China’s internal affairs in matters such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, and expressed strong opposition to this. The two leaders previously condemned China’s “destabilizing activities” in the South China Sea and expressed serious concern about developments in Hong Kong and human rights issues in Xinjiang.

In a joint statement issued after their annual Australia-New Zealand leaders’ meeting on Monday, Australian Prime Minister Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern expressed serious concern about developments in the South China Sea and stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight.

The two Prime Ministers also expressed deep concern about developments restricting the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, and expressed grave concern about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The South China Sea is rich in fisheries resources and submarine fuel resources. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are all claimants to the South China Sea, and China claims sovereignty over almost all of its waters. While China has stepped up island-building in the South China Sea in recent years, it has also been deploying marine police and fishing boats to step up patrols in the area, causing international concern and worry.

Since Beijing enacted a Hong Kong version of the National Security Law in June 2020, China has been tightening its grip on Hong Kong, forcing an increasing number of activists and politicians to leave the city and go into exile. Beijing’s approach to Xinjiang has been even more widely criticized by the international community. The detention camps in Xinjiang are believed to hold millions of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, who are allegedly subjected to human rights violations such as torture, forced sterilization, forced abortion, rape and sexual abuse, and political indoctrination in the camps.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to the joint statement by the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers at a regular press conference. He said the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers made unfounded accusations against China and violently interfered in China’s internal affairs by talking about internal affairs of China such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea, which is a serious violation of international law and basic norms of international relations, to which China resolutely opposes.

Wang Wenbin responded that the current situation in the South China Sea remains generally stable, and freedom of navigation and overflight has never been a problem. On the issue of Hong Kong, China’s determination and confidence in implementing the “one country, two systems” policy and maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong will not waver. The so-called border-related issues are not human rights, ethnic or religious issues, but anti-violence, anti-secession and de-extremism issues. He went on to say, “Over the past four years or so, not a single case of riot and terrorism has occurred in Xinjiang, remarkable achievements have been made in economic and social development and improvement of people’s livelihood, and the rights and interests of people of all ethnic groups, including the Uighurs, have been fully protected.”

He added: “We once again urge the parties concerned to stop making irresponsible remarks and do more for the development of bilateral relations and regional peace and stability, rather than the other way around.”

Australia currently has strained relations with China. Last April, Australian Prime Minister Morrison called on the international community to launch an independent investigation into the source of the new crown virus, a move that drew strong anger from Beijing. China subsequently launched a series of retaliatory actions against Australia, including restrictions on imports of a wide range of Australian goods and the imposition of punitive tariffs on the Australian side.

In response, Morrison has continued to say that Australia will stick to its principles on certain issues and will not make deals.

New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern said last month that differences between New Zealand and China are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile as Beijing’s role in the world continues to grow and change. She also said that managing relations with China is not always easy and that “there can be no guarantees.

In March, New Zealand and Australia issued a joint statement expressing grave concern about growing reports of serious human rights abuses against the Uighur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

For his part, New Zealand Foreign Minister Mahuta said in a speech in April that “issues such as human rights should be dealt with in a consistent, country-neutral manner. If a country’s actions conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights, we will not ignore the gravity and implications.”

She also told the Guardian a week ago that New Zealand could find itself at the center of a “storm” of anger from China, and that exporters needed to seek diversification to ensure they could survive New Zealand’s deteriorating relationship with Beijing.