The opening of this year’s Xiangshan Forum found China and New Zealand trading diplomatic barbs over the South China Sea, with China berating New Zealand’s defense minister Gerry Brownlee for expressing concerns about Chinese construction of artificial islands and airstrips. Reuters has the story:
“China rebuked New Zealand’s defense minister at the opening of a high-profile security forum in Beijing on Tuesday, criticizing his stance on tension in the disputed South China Sea, saying countries “not involved” should not interfere. […]
We “hope that countries who are not involved in the disputes respect the countries who are having the disputes to … work among themselves,” Fu Ying, chairwoman of China’s foreign affairs committee for parliament, said at the Xiangshan Forum, which China styles as its answer to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore.
“Outside involvement, I think the developments have shown, interferences, can only complicate the differences and sometimes even add to the tension,” said Fu, a former deputy foreign minister who was chairing the session.”
New Zealand has sought to find the right balance in opposing China’s maritime rights claims in the South China Sea without overtly antagonizing Beijing. In February, New Zealand joined Australia in denouncing the militarization of the South China Sea, after China deployed surface-to-air missiles to a disputed island. But in July, after China’s claims were roundly rejected by the verdict of an international tribunal in Hague, the response from New Zealand was more nuanced: the Kiwi authorities refused to judge the claims on their merits, but called for the rule of international law to prevail, leaving the door open for international negotiations that could include some concessions to the Chinese.
Economic considerations are at work in this balancing act. Although China is now denouncing New Zealand as an uninvolved outsider, the two countries have important economic ties. In 2008, New Zealand becoming the first developed country to recognize China as a market economy and to sign a bilateral free trade deal with the country. That decision has paid off: today, China is New Zealand’s top exports destination, with $12.1 billion worth of annual exports. During his remarks in February, Prime Minister John Key argued that New Zealand could use its close economic relationship with China as leverage to urge Beijing to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
Given this week’s response, it seems that China feels differently, and would prefer for New Zealand to keep quiet on the South China Sea. Time will tell if New Zealand will keep pushing the issue, and whether the two countries’ productive relationship will strain as a result.