Defence Minister Ron Mark is playing down criticism of China contained in Friday’s Defence Policy Statement.
He says it is merely frank talk among friends and that he told China’s General He Lei during the recent Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore what the document would say.
But western diplomats spoken to by POLITIK see the criticism as marking a change in New Zealand policy; that the reluctance of the National Government to criticise China is now in the past.
Whereas the National Government, in the 2016 Defence White Paper, described China as an “important strategic partner for New Zealand”, the Labour-led coalition Defence Policy Statement has not used that language.
Instead, it says: China is of central strategic importance in the Asia- Pacific and globally, and New Zealand continues to build a strong and resilient relationship with China.
“Defence and security cooperation with China has grown over recent years, supported by a range of visits, exchanges and dialogues.”
Contrast that with 2016: “(China’s) policies directly affect New Zealand’s security and economy. New Zealand, therefore, continues to build a strong and resilient relationship with China.”
But the big contrast came with this sentence from 2016.
“Alongside the political and economic relationship, China and New Zealand have an evolving development relationship in the Pacific region, where China is emerging as a significant donor.”
The new document simply says:” Concurrently, China is enhancing its influence in the region, including through development assistance and support for economic engagement.”
There is now no mention of the “evolving relationship”.
It is well known in Wellington that Australia, in particular, has been critical of New Zealand’s apparent reluctance to criticise China and has wanted to see New Zealand take a more assertive stance against growing Chinese influence in the Pacific.
A measure of Australia’s pre-occupation with China came in “the Australian” on Friday which ran a report saying Australian and New Zealand officials were set to seal a wide-ranging security agreement with Pacific Island nations “that analysts say should be used to limit the military involvement of non-signatories such as Russia and China in the region. “
“The agreement, covering defence, law and order, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, is expected to be signed at the Pacific Islands Forum in September after senior officials from nations involved met last month.
“International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said Australia had contributed views on regional security issues such as defence, police, and law and order co-operation, during the consultation process.
“A new Biketawa Plus regional security declaration will guide Pacific Islands Forum member countries, including Australia, and regional organisations on Pacific priorities for security co-operation, and provide a framework for responding to emerging threats,” Senator Fierravanti-Wells told The Australian.”
POLITIK understands that New Zealand officials do not see the Declaration as primarily aimed at China but rather at emerging threats in the region like trans-national crime.
And Mark told POLITIK that New Zealand still sees China as an important strategic partner.
“But some things China is doing are not helpful to peace and stability,” he said.
“If we look at theSouth China Sea in particular, and I’ve had these conversations directly with Lt Gen He Lei at the Shangrila Dialogue, the reclamation of land and the construction of artificial islands and the construction of military facilities and the landing of strategic bombers on those facilities is not helpful,” he said.
“What China is doing in that space creates oppurtunies for miscalculation.” Mark rejects any idea that his Government is downgrading the defence relationship with China and points to last month’s participation of a People’s Liberation Army Air Force IL-76 aircraft in a joint exercise, Exercise Skytrain.
The exercise was the first joint-exercise between the two countries’air forces.
The exercise focused on humanitarian aid, disaster relief and maritime search and rescue operations.
In contrast, the United States “dis-invited” China from its annual Rimpac Exercise which is currently still running to which New Zealand sent the frigate, Te Mana, two Orion aircraft and a number of additional elements including a public affairs team and a padre.
Mark believes that it is important that New Zealand continues to exercise with China.
“The most important thing we can do is keep doors open and keep talking to each other and keep the dialogue going,” he said.
And he offered a subtle criticism of the United States move.
“Going the other way, where you start to nip off your connectivity and our exchanges and your involvement in exercises with them and them with us would be precisely the wrong thing to do.
“But that is not to say that we can’t be frank in our conversations.
“We are an independent nation, and we have our own sovereign and territorial interests to protect.
“Some things that are happening are not helpful.
“They create the opportunity for miscalculations.”
From a domestic point of view, Mark has the support of all the Government parties for his statement and it appears that he will soon be announcing the purchase of four P8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol aircraft.
The new emphasis on the impact of Climate Change on the region and the southern ocean will have helped sell the statement to the Greens.
However he says the review of the previous Government’s Defence Capability Plan is not yet complete and that will have to confront decisions about replacing the RNZAF transport aircraft and the Navy’s two frigates.
That along with a proposal to base an Singapore Air Force F15 squadron at Ohakea may prove to be harder sells to the Cabinet.
But getting his policy statement and the P8 purchase through Cabinet suggests that he is being listened to.