In its overview of the Northeast Asian strategic environment, New Zealand’s last Defence White Paper recognised the significance of China’s rise as an economic and military power. In so doing, it drew attention to some of the possible consequences of that rise. One of these was that there “there will be a natural tendency for [China] … to define and pursue its interests in a more forthright way”.
As this blog has noted in several posts, this tendency has been readily apparent in relation to the South China Sea; particularly since 2012 when China seized control of Scarborough Shoal after a stand-off with the Philippines and most recently with its extensive land reclamation efforts and subsequent construction of civil and military infrastructure on the resulting artificial islands. These activities are occurring, China contends, in what are indisputably Chinese sovereign territorial waters. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that New Zealand’s 2014 Defence Assessment (released in May 2015) notes that efforts ‘to lay claim to contested territory via regular patrolling, occupation of islands, and overflights, increases the risks of minor clashes escalating into more serious conflict.’ Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully have both made similarly worried comments in recent months.