By Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English canceled a meeting with two senior Hong Kong democracy supporters this week on advice from his foreign office, he said on Friday, underscoring a delicate relationship with Communist Party-ruled China.
English said in an emailed statement that he canceled the meeting with former Hong Kong legislator Martin Lee and former colonial chief secretary Anson Chan on the eve of the appointment after he was advised it was "diplomatically sensitive".
New Zealand has been more careful recently than neighbor Australia not to offend China as both Pacific countries jostle for export opportunities in the Asian giant.
"This is the first time it's happened to me like this, a meeting was canceled at the last minute," Lee told Reuters.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to comment during a routine briefing, saying she "did not understand the situation".
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing earlier this week.
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees it freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Street protests calling for full democracy for Hong Kong in 2014 presented Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges in decades. Dozens of pro-Beijing lawmakers walked out of the Hong Kong legislature on Wednesday to prevent the swearing-in of two pro-independence activists, setting the scene for a new constitutional crisis.
Lee has for decades campaigned for democracy for Hong Kong. Chan has said China should trust Hong Kong people to pick their own leader.
China became New Zealand's largest trading partner after a Free Trade Agreement in 2008, making New Zealand the first western country to sign such a deal. Exports to China amounted to NZ$12.1 billion ($8.67 billion) in the year to June, which equates to 17 percent of New Zealand's exports.
English, who advised Lee and Chan of the cancellation by email, said that it was "not uncommon" for the Foreign Affairs Minister to advise on meetings with overseas visitors.
The Foreign Affairs office did not reply to a request for comment on its advice.
In contrast, Chan and Lee last week met with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and testified in front of the Australian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee about protecting Hong Kong's autonomy.
Opposition Labour Party legislator David Shearer, who spoke with Chan and Lee earlier this week, said Chinese officials had approached him expressing "concern" about the meeting.
"It's not in New Zealand's interest not to go through with a meeting because of persuasion of pressure from another country," Shearer said.
There were strains in the two countries' relationship earlier this month when China rebuked New Zealand's defense minister at the opening of a high-profile security forum in Beijing, criticizing his stance on tension in the disputed South China Sea.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jane Wardell and Nick Macfie)