WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins urged China on Monday to help curb tensions in a “more contested, less predictable” Pacific, and to preserve access to critical trade routes.
China is rapidly expanding its diplomatic, economic and military footprint in the Pacific, often jostling for influence with the United States and its allies.
Nearly half of New Zealand’s trade passes through the South China Sea, said Hipkins, who led a trade delegation to Beijing last month and met with President Xi Jinping.
The way China exerts its clout in the world is a “major driver” in escalating strategic competition, especially in the Asia-Pacific, Hipkins told the China Business Summit in Auckland.
Unimpeded access to shipping and air routes was “vital” to New Zealand, he added.
“New Zealand is concerned about a worsening strategic environment and rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region in particular in places like the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait,” the prime minister said.
“We have direct interests in these areas and are therefore focused on the need for tensions to be carefully managed and de-escalated in the wider interests of the Pacific,” he continued.
“And we look to China to play its part in this regard.”
China has in recent years ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, which it claims as its territory, vowing to take it one day — by force if necessary.
Beijing also maintains sweeping, contested claims over the South China Sea.
At the same time, China is seeking to grow its influence in the South Pacific, notably making inroads in the Solomon Islands, with which it signed a secretive defence pact last year.
This month, China rolled out the red carpet for pro-Beijing Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare and inked a raft of deals, including one allowing it to extend its police presence in the island nation until 2025.
Wellington has been increasingly vocal in recent years about human rights issues in China and any potential militarisation of the Pacific.
Hipkins said New Zealand would talk “candidly, but respectfully” with China’s leadership about their differences.
“Our region is becoming more contested, less predictable, and less secure,” he said.
“In this increasingly complex global environment, our relationship with China will continue to require careful management.”
Wellington’s Western allies have long been concerned about what they regard as New Zealand’s overdependence on trade with China.
But Hipkins said New Zealand’s exporters now enjoyed better terms of trade in other “equally significant” markets after striking free trade agreements with Britain, the European Union and a major trans-Pacific trade bloc.