China boxing clever on South China Sea as it ramps up pressure on NZ to pick a side
OPINION: Prime Minister John Key could be forgiven for thinking he’d been handed a bouquet and then roundly bashed over the head with it upon arriving in China.
He received two very different welcomes on his first day in Beijing, leading a trade delegation on his sixth visit to China as prime minister.
One was a warm display of pageantry, pomp and military splendour, while the other was little more than a thinly-veiled threat.
Make no mistake, China’s warning to Key over the South China Sea was as deliberate as it was serious.
On the opening day of his visit, Key was greeted by front page stories across two of the main China dailies, cautioning him to take care when talking about the conflict in the South China Sea.
Raise the issue, and risk compromising the close relationship in trade, tourism and education enjoyed by the two countries, the papers warned.
Xinhua and the Global Times are both major state-controlled publications. It would not be too far removed to suggest the message came from the Chinese government.
And yet, later that afternoon – at around the time Key was taking part in a state welcoming ceremony – the main links had been removed from the websites of both papers.
It was perhaps an acknowledgment that the message had been heard, and whatever was discussed with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in their meeting at around 6pm Monday (local time) would stand on its own.
Ahead of the meeting, Key remained resolute he would raise the issue, regardless of the shots across his bow.
The troubles in region are complex and sit in a delicate holding position. A number of countries have overlapping claims to the territory, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan.
The passage of sea is an important international shipping route, and in moves designed to enhance its claim, China has objected to the United States flying military aircraft over the area.
The US, on the other hand, is urging other countries to follow suit and assert its status as international airspace, under international law.
But while Key maintains New Zealand’s position is consistent and clear – we take no sides other than the side of peaceful resolution – there are a couple of things that must be confusing the hell out of China.
Earlier this year, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully delivered a speech to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
He said New Zealand had no position on the various claims to territory in the region, “but we do have a stake in how these disputes are managed”.
Appearing to take aim at China’s increased military build-up in the region, McCully warned the increased tension raised the risk of “miscalculation”.
“We regard all of these activities as unhelpful, regardless of the party responsible.”
That, coupled with New Zealand’s defence presence in the region as our air force takes part in military exercises lead by Malaysia, and China was clearly playing its own manouevre.
Key batted away both incidents, and said the military training was a standard exercise – the timing for which had no correlation to his visit.
That may be true, but whether or not a message was intended to be delivered with that move is irrelevant – China will be receiving one.
Key was also vague on who instigated the trip and the timing of it, so close to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s trip last week. Both articles in the Chinese media suggested they were timed closely so the message could be delivered to the Oceania bloc.
And yet, the message did not appear to affect the warmth with which Key was received at a lunch hosted by a group of China’s top businessmen and women, representing hundreds of billions in Chinese wealth.
The business lunch included China’s richest man, Jack Ma, whose online retail platform, Alibaba – which he further opened to New Zealand businesses looking to sell into China – provided him with an estimated net worth of US$29.1 billion (NZ$42 billion).
He appeared to deliver a message to his own government that “trade should not be used as a weapon” in military or international negotiations. Money buys power, no matter what the political system.
New Zealand has found itself wedged in the middle of a geopolitical power play between China and the US – two of our closest relationships, and both looking to box Key into picking a side.