In the last few weeks, Foreign Minister McCully has been offering some important soundings on NZ's international priorities for 2016. Unfortunately the two speeches he gave in Singapore and Sydney attracted little coverage in the New Zealand media. That’s a pity because in amongst sections on the UN Security Council and the Pacific, the speeches included the government's latest views on the biggest security issue facing the region today: tensions in the South China Sea.
Disputes in the South China Sea go back decades, but over the last three years in particular, the situation has got progressively worse. In 2012, Chinese and Philippines vessels clashed over access to the Scarborough Shoal, less than 200km off the coast of Luzon. In 2014, Vietnam's relations with China plunged following clashes in disputed waters. And in the last two years China has also begun an effort to construct artificial islands on a range of reefs and partially submerged features in the Spratly Islands. For its part, the United States has declared it has a national interest in freedom of navigation and overflight in the region and in the past few months the US Navy has carried out two Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), sailing close to disputed features, to assert these rights.
There are several points of note in the Singapore and Sydney speeches. The first is the speaker himself. These remarks are the first time Mr. McCully has offered lengthy public comment on the South China Sea. Previous statements to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee or at the ASEAN Regional Forum, have never appeared on the Beehive website. Instead, it has been Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee who has publicly set out New Zealand’s position, first at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2015 and later in a speech delivered to China’s National Defence University in Beijing. Mr. McCully’s recent remarks suggest that New Zealand sees the South China Sea as a wider foreign policy issue. The ministerial full-court press underlines the seriousness with which the issue is being viewed in Wellington.
Second, New Zealand has taken a clearer position on what’s driving the troubles. Speaking in Singapore, Mr. McCully said the “particular cause” of “heightened tension” (the phrase was “increased strain” in Sydney), was the “reclamation and construction activity” taking place in disputed areas. This was the first time any New Zealand minister has publicly said reclamation activities (which are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, being carried out by China) are part of the problem. Previous speeches only referred to a desire to “better understand the intentions of countries undertaking reclamation activities.”
Third, both the Singapore and Sydney speeches make reference to “the deployment of military assets” in the South China Sea as a factor in escalating tensions. American officials have frequently criticised China’s “militarization” of features, for example through the deployment of HQ9 surface to air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels, and the building of powerful radars on features in the Spratly Islands. New Zealand’s formulation “deployment of military assets” is distinct and arguably softer. Pointedly, however, in both speeches Mr. McCully reminds his listeners that in 2015 President Xi Jinping pledged “not to militarise new features”.
Fourth, and most importantly, Mr. McCully refers specifically to the Philippines case against China that is currently before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in The Hague. New Zealand has previously said it supports the rights of states to access international dispute resolution mechanisms, but Beijing will not have been pleased to see such a direct reference. Noting that a decision is expected soon, Mr. McCully said “we expect all parties to respect the result of the Tribunal’s ruling.” Given that China stated clearly in a December 2014 position paper that it would not accept the decision of the Tribunal, this is a plain and public disagreement with Beijing.
If some of the language is new, there is also a good deal of continuity. Both speeches show a considerable effort to be even handed. Reclamation and the deployment of military assets is unhelpful “regardless of the party involved.” In a not-so-subtle dig at the United States, Mr. McCully expresses regret that “some with interests in the process are not yet parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”. But those comments notwithstanding, there is no doubt the language moves New Zealand closer to the position that has been taken by its traditional security partners.
This raises the question: why now? One theory doing the rounds is that this is evidence the gloss has gone off the New Zealand-China relationship. As China’s economy slows down, what has largely been seen as an enormous economic success story is increasingly beset with niggles. Some point to frustrations on the part of New Zealand officials wanting to renegotiate the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement. The government is also reportedly looking into allegations that China is acting outside the spirit of the FTA by enforcing a series of Non-Tariff Barriers in the forestry sector. There are doubtless difficulties, but it’s hard to see how linking the two issues could have any kind of positive outcome for New Zealand.
More likely is that New Zealand wanted to make its position on the Philippines' ITLOS case absolutely clear before the decision is announced in the middle of the year. Most of what is in Mr. McCully's speeches has been said by Ministers before, only not publicly. If the Tribunal's decision goes against China, as many predict, then Beijing can't say it is surprised if New Zealand joins calls for it to follow the ruling.
The other factor is that the facts on the ground have changed and New Zealand’s position needed to move with them. China’s actions in recent months have elicited growing concerns, not just from the US and Australia, but increasingly from across ASEAN. Singapore's leaders have expressed disquiet about the deteriorating situation. Even Malaysia, which has historically preferred “quiet diplomacy” and been reluctant to criticize Chinese actions, has spoken of a need to recalibrate its policy and “push back” against Chinese assertiveness. And since Mr. McCully made his remarks, a clash between Chinese and Indonesian vessels near the Natuna Islands has only further highlighted ASEAN anxiety.
It is surely no coincidence that Mr. McCully chose Singapore to make his first public comments. His language on the South China Sea followed fulsome praise for the ASEAN-centred regional security architecture, describing arrangements such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum as the “key vehicle for engagement” on political and security challenges. In taking a somewhat more confrontational stance towards China, New Zealand might be more comfortable doing so amongst the ASEANs, highlighting that its position is subtly different from the positions of the United States and Australia. And it also wants to stress that it sees regional multilateral diplomacy as the best way to ease the growing strains.
David Capie is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: United States Navy