This week will see the twenty-second meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the annual talkfest where foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific region come together to discuss and debate security issues. Ruled by the ASEAN norms of consensus and non-interference in domestic affairs, in recent years these meetings have been criticized for their failure to address the region’s most pressing security concerns, including the situation in the South China Sea.
But in the lead up to the ARF in Kuala Lumpur, there is a sense that this year might be a bit different. Many ASEAN members – including the host Malaysia – are alarmed by China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea. Since September 2013, China has used advanced reclamation techniques to turn seven disputed features in the Spratlys into artificial islands. According to a report by the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies its aim is to “strengthen Beijing’s ability to enforce its territorial and jurisdictional claims within the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ that covers approximately 80 per cent of the South China Sea.”
First, it’s worth recalling how little New Zealand has said publicly on this issue since tensions began ramping up at the start of 2014. As my colleague Rob Ayson pointed out in an op-ed last May, things might have been getting ugly in the South China Sea, but you wouldn’t know it from the government’s silence. New Zealand, as he put it, had not just kept its head down, it had “an exceptionally low profile.”
Shortly after that op-ed appeared, Foreign Minister McCully appeared before parliament’s Foreign Affairs select committee, where he set out New Zealand’s four-point position for the first time, saying: (1) New Zealand doesn’t take a position on the sovereignty claims involved; (2) it urges all parties to exercise restraint and to avoid actions that might inflame the situation; (3) it encourages all parties to resolve issues peacefully in accordance with international law; and (4) it encourages the development and conclusion of an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct.
But in diplomacy, how and where you say something is almost as important as what you say. Try and find mention of Mr. McCully’s formula on the Beehive or MFAT websites and you will search in vain. When the Minister repeated New Zealand’s position at the ARF in Myanmar last year (adding a fifth point that NZ supported the right of states to seek redress through legal mechanisms) again no public statement followed. The unavoidable impression was that New Zealand wanted to have the lowest possible profile on this issue.
Indeed, the most recent public comments came not from Mr. McCully, but from Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee in an address to the Shangri-La Dialogue defence forum in Singapore in May. In his delivered remarks Mr. Brownlee offered some new language on the South China Sea. After restating that New Zealand takes no position on the sovereignty claims involved, he said, “we are concerned about the prospect of miscalculation and escalation leading to conflict.” The Minister than made the first public reference to the island-building activities that have dominated headlines in 2015, saying that, “New Zealand would be pleased to better understand the intentions of countries undertaking reclamation activities.” The plural countries marked a continuation of New Zealand’s preference to address its concerns to all states involved in the dispute, not simply China.
But in another elegantly crafted paragraph, he went on:
“In my view, all big countries are made much bigger, in every sense of the word, by recognising their strengths and confidently sharing and diffusing concerns of smaller countries. By recognising these concerns and seeking dialogue in the settlement of issues, it is the mark of a big country and, as we would say in New Zealand, it confers what we call mana for respective nations.”
A very subtle call for restraint and reassurance from China? Movement perhaps, but cautious stuff nonetheless.
By comparison, Australian Defence Minister Kevin Andrews told the same conference Australia opposes “any large-scale reclamation activity” and opposes “coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo.” In words directed clearly at Beijing, Andrews added he was “particularly concerned at the prospect of any militarisation of artificial structures.” US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Washington wanted “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants.” Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, who visited Wellington recently, has called China’s actions “aggressive” and “coercive.”
There is a stark and growing gap between what New Zealand has said in public and the language used by its closest security partners. That is not altogether a bad thing. The difference in tone reflects the different national interests and relationships involved. But there is another gap that is perhaps more worrying: the gap between privately held concerns in Wellington about what’s going on in the South China Sea and what New Zealand is saying in public about the dispute.
The ARF would be a good place for New Zealand to narrow that gap and make a subtle but important adjustment to its public position. Speaking up in an ASEAN forum allows Wellington to avoid the impression that it is simply lining up behind Washington and Canberra. Fleshing out Mr Brownlee’s suggestion that big countries have a special responsibility to diffuse the concerns of smaller countries would be a good place to start.
Photo credit: NZ Government