On The Radar: New Zealand Expresses Criticism of China's Actions in the South China Sea

Following escalating tensions in the South China Sea over the past year, New Zealand has notably stepped forward to critique Beijing's actions.

On Saturday, May 23, 2023, another confrontation occurred at the Second Thomas Shoal when the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) used water cannons against the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), who were conducting a standard resupply mission to their troops aboard the dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre.

The Philippine boat sustained heavy damage due to the continued blasting of water cannons from the CCG vessels, according to a press release from the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Chinese Coast Guard used water cannon against Philippines vessel in Second Thomas Shoal. Image: Philippine Coast Guard.

This incident prompted a rare response from New Zealand, marking its first direct public criticism of China's behaviour towards the Philippines in the South China Sea. New Zealand expressed 'deep concern' over the aggressive manoeuvres of Chinese vessels towards the Philippines, indicating significant involvement in the ongoing dispute between Beijing and Manila.

New Zealand Embassy in Manila released a statement after the encounter of Chinese and Filipino coast guards in South China Sea. Image: NZ Embassy in Manila Facebook page.

In December 2023, New Zealand faced backlash on social media for a perceived mild response to another incident in the contested waters, drawing criticism for its seemingly ineffectual stance compared to the responses from its allies such as the United States, Australia, and Japan.

Notable figures in diplomacy and strategic analysis reacted to New Zealand’s weak statement by not naming China. Philip Turner, New Zealand’s former Ambassador to South Korea, reposted the statement, highlighting the omission of China's name.

Meanwhile, Euan Graham, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said, "Statements are better than silence, but if you don't name the bully and condemn only 'incidents', then the bully has something on you."

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon defended his government's position, asserting New Zealand's readiness to confront Beijing over actions contrasting with New Zealand's values, despite China being its largest trading partner. This shift in stance was evident when Luxon backed Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s criticisms of Beijing's alarming behavior in South China Sea, during the 50th anniversary of Australia-ASEAN relations in Melbourne early this month.

The timing of New Zealand's statement, following a visit from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, underscores a delicate balancing act.

NZ and Chinese Foreign Ministers hold official talks in Wellington. Image: PRC's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.: China

Wang Yi and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters discussed a range of sensitive issues, including human rights concerns, regional tensions, and New Zealand's potential involvement in AUKUS, a move that the Global Times, a daily tabloid of the Chinese Communist Party, criticised.

New Zealand's engagement in these discussions and its stance on regional security and human rights issues signal a potential shift in its traditionally cordial relations with Beijing, which began with a landmark trade deal in 2008, highlighting the evolving dynamics of international relations and trade diplomacy.

Some commentators expressed worries that the National-led government's statements towards China might be too risky for the nations’ bilateral ties.

However, Winston Peters, serving his third term as Foreign Minister, believed otherwise. He was confident that New Zealand’s trade partnership with China would not be at risk even if the government calls out their Chinese counterparts on sensitive issues.

He also emphasised that, just like any nation, New Zealand is entitled to organise defence arrangements with its allies to enhance defence capabilities for long-term security concerns.

Banner: Incident on Second Thomas Shoal on 23 March 2023, image from Philippine Coast Guard. 

-Asia Media Centre