Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman is expecting to discuss China's tensions over territorial disputes when he meets Chinese military leaders today in his first visit to the country as Defence Minister.

Dr Coleman was last night yet to be fully briefed on the flight of two unarmed US B-52s over an island that is in dispute with US-ally Japan in the East China Sea which China declared last weekend as its airspace.

He said would be telling his hosts that New Zealand did not take sides in the disputes and wanted them resolved through international processes.

Asean countries were having talks with China about a code of conduct but he believed nothing would be happening very quickly.


"This has been running since about 1947 in the modern frame, and the origins of these issues go back centuries," he told the Herald last night.

"It's got a lot of publicity in the past couple of years but these are long-running disputes."

Dr Coleman has twice visited the United States in the past 16 months as the rift over New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy healed.

He said his visit to China designed to "balance out our defence diplomacy with the United States," and to build networks across the Asia Pacific region while "walking this path between the US and China."

Dr Coleman who has also just completed his first visit to Vietnam as Defence Minister said he recognised the importance some countries put on defence.

"In the past maybe we haven't always appreciated the diplomatic leverage we can achieve through defence."

In China he will meet the Minister of National Defence, General Chang Wanquan, and General Shao Keshi, director of the logistics of the People's Liberation Army and a member of the Central Military Commission who visited New Zealand in October.

In Vietnam, 41 years after the Vietnam War ended, Dr Coleman signed a co-operation agreement which allows for military exchanges, ship visits, joint exercises, training and education including in peace-keeping; provision of emergency assistance to each other and having an annual strategic dialogue on defence.


All the things could be achieved without that but Dr Coleman said it was a "pretty symbolic."

There were already cooperation agreements in education and agriculture and there was likely to be an air services agreement signed next year - all part of Comprehensive Partnership with Vietnam - initiated by Prime Minister John Key in 2009.

Dr Coleman said Vietnam was keen for New Zealand to help advise its military ahead of its first peace-keeping assignment in South Sudan.

It was also keen on English language training for its military, although that might not necessarily be from New Zealand defence personnel.

In Vietnam, Dr Coleman was taken to visit Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Nha Trang and he had talks with National Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh who visited New Zealand in March, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.