NZ’s Defence Minister Ron Mark is visiting China for talks with Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe and the vice chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, Air Chief Marshal Xu Qiliang.
Before he left on his four-day mission he described China as a “key strategic partner”, saying he aimed to improve the relationship “and help build our understanding of the country”. He said he would discuss the security implications of climate change, and also discuss peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts.
But even though he is renowned for being politically feisty on his home patch, it is unlikely he would raise with his Chinese counterparts such issues as the round of protests in Hong Kong or the fate of the Uighurs.
That omission might appear strange given that – in a speech to the National Defence University (where he said it was an honour to address the next generation of leaders of the People’s Liberation Army) he emphasised how New Zealanders have a built-in sense of responsibility around always “doing our part”.
This applies, he said, to NZ Defence’s contributions to the rules-based order, both in the Pacific and further afield.
Perhaps he thought it was more diplomatic to try the oblique approach.
In a section of his speech headed “Challenges” he spoke of how for NZ,
“ … our stake in the international rules-based order is fundamental and concrete. The order enables us to pursue prosperity and an independent foreign policy”.
He emphasised NZ’s security depends on the maintenance of this order, which has broadly led to the peaceful coexistence and cooperation of states — large and small — for nearly 75 years. It has given all states an equal seat at the table.
The laws, norms, and institutions of a healthy order preserve stability and safeguard against conflict and uncertainty.
Mark told his Chinese audience Defence makes real differences in real lives.
“We maintain a level of capability to detect, deter and counter a range of threats to NZ”.
He pointed out how the NZ government had raised the priority placed on the NZ Defence Force’s ability to operate in the Pacific to the same level as NZ’s own territory, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
NZ’s own prosperity and security are intrinsically linked to those of the Pacific. This lift in Defence priority comes in the context of the government’s Pacific Reset.
Mark went on to say NZ and China, together with many other countries in the region and around the world, have benefited from the rules-based order.
“It’s important that we continue to look for opportunities to work together in a practical way. Peacekeeping operations, counter-piracy efforts, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are areas where we have common interests”.
The international rules-based order has many important aspects. One is transparency, which includes transparency in defence policies and actions.
“This is one key reason that NZ released the Strategic Defence Policy Statement, including its frank assessment that the international rules-based under is eroding in ways that challenge our security. By communicating our views openly through this public document, our international partners can clearly see what we stand for, and where we are prepared to take action. If we are all transparent in our motivations, we reduce the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations”.
Could this have been a reference to China’s efforts to militarise the South China Sea?
If so it might have been a trace too subtle for his listeners.