WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has welcomed greater engagement of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region while noting that her government has “mature” relations with China that allow for disagreement.

Ardern made her comments to the U.S. network NBC news, adding that the U.S. has “an incredibly important role” to play in the region, saying, “We welcome that physical presence, being part of important talks in our region.”

Next week, Ardern will host an online summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, including those from the U.S., China, and Japan, to discuss the region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

New Zealand has close trade links with China and has been lauded by Beijing as a model for relations with Western countries. For her part, Ardern said New Zealand will continue its policy of “integrity,” with China.

“We do still believe that we have the maturity in our relationship to raise issues that we are concerned about, be it human rights issues, labour issues, or environmental issues,” she added.

The relations between Australia, New Zealand’s neighbour, and China have worsened since 2018, after Canberra banned Huawei from developing its 5G broadband network.

Relations were further strained last year when Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, China imposed tariffs on Australian commodities, which the U.S. condemned as “economic coercion.”

However, New Zealand claimed this issue has not affected its relations with China, and both nations upgraded their free trade agreement in January. But Wellington remains in agreement with Canberra over China’s human rights issues.