Prime Minister John Key ordered Trade Minister Tim Groser home from Russia today, ending for now any further discussions on a Russian free trade deal that has been three years in the making as Russia ratchets up pressure on Ukraine on the Crimean Peninsula.
Groser had been in Moscow for trade talks ahead of a possible visit to the Russian capital by Key in a fortnight as part of a global swing through China and Europe that will take in meetings with senior Chinese leadership and an international Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands.
Key said he was only missing Moscow on the forthcoming trip because suggested dates had not worked for the Russian president Vladimir Putin, although continuing to discuss an FTA with Russia in the present circumstances was not appropriate.
"I don't think we could seriously, even if Mr Groser could tie up a deal this afternoon, (sign a free trade agreement) at the same time as we are expressing our deep concern about the threat to sovereignty in Ukraine," said Key.
He declined to speculate on what response would give if the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the defence alliance between western European nations and the United States, were to ask for New Zealand's assistance if conflict broke out over Russia's incursion into the Crimean Peninsula.
"That's a hypothetical question," he said. If it arose, New Zealand would assess such a request "on its merits."
He accepted it could offend Russia to have called off the current talks, but New Zealand's position was consistent with many other countries.
"It's a very serious situation," he said, hoping that a diplomatic solution would emerge.
"The FTA has been under negotiation for three years. It has been and is very close to being concluded. Good progress is being made. But I don't think this would be the right time to signing an FTA if there was potentially one on the table today."
Key's Beijing sojourn will be his first since the August infant milk formula contamination false alarm that saw Fonterra product implicated in a global product recall that particularly hit the Chinese market.
"I will be able to report to China's political leadership, and assure Chinese consumers, that the (government-backed inquiry into the incident) delivered a strong endorsement of the New Zealand food safety system," Key said.
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