As China’s live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait draw to a close, there is bipartisan agreement in Aotearoa on the need for tensions to simmer down before tragedy strikes

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and her National Party counterpart Gerry Brownlee have both expressed concerns about growing tensions across the Taiwan Strait, as former prime minister Sir John Key launched a broadside against a senior US politician’s visit to Taipei.

Mahuta has also flagged further action against Myanmar in the wake of its military coup, with the possibility New Zealand could join in an international case being taken against the country for human rights abuses against minority populations.

Foreign ministers from around Southeast Asia met in Cambodia last week as part of ASEAN proceedings, with Mahuta representing New Zealand in the country’s capacity as a dialogue partner.

The talks came as China carried out live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, with Taiwanese officials later accusing Beijing of carrying out a simulated attack on the island.

The military exercises were sparked by a controversial visit to Taiwan by senior United States politician Nancy Pelosi, whose trip came despite warnings of retaliation from Beijing.

The tensions bled into ASEAN events, with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov staging a walkout when Japan’s Yoshimasa Hayashi started to deliver his remarks – apparently in protest at Tokyo’s criticism of the military drills.

Speaking to Newsroom from Cambodia, Mahuta said the presence of both Russia and China had not prevented ASEAN members and dialogue partners from expressing their views on a range of contentious issues, including the situations in Taiwan and Ukraine.

Nanaia Mahuta said a walkout at ASEAN meetings did not affect communications in a meaningful way. Photo: Pool.

There was a broad feeling that tensions in the Taiwan Strait needed to be de-escalated, with New Zealand joining with other ASEAN nations in calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution to the situation.

“It’s concerning, we’re calling for de-escalation,” Mahuta said of China’s use of missiles in live-fire drills.

She declined to comment on China’s decision to suspend cooperation with the US in a number of areas, but said the Government was “committed to ensuring channels of dialogue between China and New Zealand are maintained”.

While Wang and Lavrov had walked out at one point, they “certainly were aware of what was said” given their officials had stayed in the room.

Brownlee, the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, told Newsroom Mahuta’s calls for deescalation were “the right space to be in”.

He suggested both the US and China had cause to regret their actions, questioning why Pelosi had visited despite seeming opposition from US President Joe Biden, and describing China’s threats in response as “not diplomacy”.

“What’s really needed is a more respectful dialogue, and how that’s achieved I’m not quite sure.”

“You can’t deny that the current Chinese government, whether you like the fact that they’re Communist or otherwise, have done a pretty amazing job, in fact, of lifting tens of millions of people out of abject poverty.”
– Gerry Brownlee, National Party

The gap between the approach of the Government and the views of National on China were not significant, he said, with the need to understand the two countries’ differences balanced with the recognition “every government in the world is trying to act on behalf of their people to do the right thing”.

“You can’t deny that the current Chinese government, whether you like the fact that they’re Communist or otherwise, have done a pretty amazing job, in fact, of lifting tens of millions of people out of abject poverty.

“They’ve still got a long way to go, they acknowledge that themselves, so their position in the world is going to be challenging from an international cultural perspective over the decades to come.”

Brownlee’s remarks about the Chinese regime’s poverty alleviation were echoed by former National prime minister Sir John Key, who in an appearance on TVNZ’s Q+A accused Pelosi of “poking the bear” by her visit.

“In my opinion it was reckless, if you want to be kind. It was provocative, and it was actually dangerous,” Key said.

Asked by Q+A host Jack Tame whether he thought Xi Jinping was an authoritarian leader, Key repeatedly dodged the question, saying: “It’s not for me really to be the great judge… I personally like him. I think there are strengths and weaknesses in every leader, in everything that they do.”

The former prime minister said he had found Xi to be “extremely trustworthy, very open and consistent” in their personal relationship.

Further Myanmar action ‘entirely feasible’

The slow pace of peace talks in Myanmar was also a topic of concern in Cambodia, with ASEAN ministers expressing disappointment in the military junta’s failure to implement a ‘five-point consensus’ designed to put an end to violence and human rights abuses including the execution of political prisoners.

Mahuta said the absence of junta officials from ASEAN proceedings was indicative of the lack of progress towards peace in the country, and there was a commitment from the grouping’s members to push harder for recognition of the peace plan.

While the Government announced in late June it would join Ukraine’s case against Russia at the International Court of Justice, New Zealand has so far refrained from joining a case being taken against Myanmar over the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim population.

Mahuta told Newsroom it had been important to attend the ASEAN discussions and hear views from across the group.

It was “entirely feasible” Aotearoa would consider its stance on the ICJ case as part of further action on Myanmar, with officials expected to report back with some options for next steps.

The Government had already suspended high-level engagement and implemented travel bans following the coup, she said. “We have not been slow in terms of our response.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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