WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand said on Thursday it wants to independently analyse the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report on the origins of the novel coronavirus before it commented, explaining its reluctance to join others in expressing concern.
Thirteen countries including New Zealand’s Five Eyes alliance partners the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, cast doubt on the WHO report saying it was delayed and lacked access to complete data.
New Zealand was invited to sign a joint statement with those countries, but did not do so.
“New Zealand acknowledges that member states have expressed a number of concerns. New Zealand wants to make sure we conduct an independent analysis to ensure we understand the science before making any comment,” New Zealand’s foreign ministry told Reuters in an email response to questions.
The ministry did not confirm if it would issue a separate statement.
“Our scientific experts, who have been fully engaged with the wider COVID response, are analysing the report. When they have done so, we will decide on the most appropriate way to comment on the mission,” the foreign ministry said.
New Zealand’s absence from the joint statement has drawn criticism from academics who questioned if the Pacific island nation was appeasing Beijing to avoid China’s wrath.
“At what point does NZ’s quiet shift on China, look more like timidity, even appeasement?” Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury and an expert on China, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
China is now New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, with annual two-way trade of more than NZ$32 billion ($22.3 billion). Beijing this year upgraded a free trade agreement that had been in discussion for years.
The foreign ministry said it was under no pressure to stay quiet.
“New Zealand’s decision not to join any statement was made independently,” it said.
New Zealand has also declined to put its name to other joint statements with its Five Eyes partners on China recently, including one in January that raised concerns about the mass arrests of politicians and activists in Hong Kong.
Finance Minister Nanaia Mahuta later issued a separate statement saying the arrests undermined the one-country-two-systems framework, the principle meant to ensure Hong Kong could enjoy freedoms unavailable in mainland China.
Australia and New Zealand also issued a joint statement on the human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region last week.
($1 = 1.4343 New Zealand dollars)
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Stephen Coates)