Good on Prime Minister John Key for maintaining New Zealand's position on the South China Sea dispute - despite pressure to stay quiet on the issue.

This week he downplayed warnings in Chinese state-run media not to raise the South China Sea during his China visit if he wants progress on trade, saying New Zealand's position has not changed and he takes such messages with "a grain of salt".

The New Zealand Government has consistently refused to take sides in the South China Sea argument but this year both Mr Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully increased criticism of ongoing reclamations and military buildups in the disputed territory.

Both have been careful not to directly name China, instead urging caution by all countries involved, but China was seen as the primary target of the concern.

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Media outlets in China have since run pieces saying New Zealand has implicitly criticised China by stepping up its calls against militarisation and reclamations.

Mr Key says he does not believe it will derail his attempts for the renegotiation of the free trade agreement signed in 2008.

Given the warnings have come against the backdrop of renegotiating a trade deal, it is clear that some pressure is being applied. The trade deal is of significant importance to the New Zealand economy, especially for the already struggling dairy sector.

A lot might be at stake but it would be wrong to let that influence our foreign policy on key international matters. To his credit, Mr Key says he will raise the South China Sea issue during his visit this week.

I'm pleased he is standing his ground. Some things are non-negotiable.