The Defence Minister left New Zealand today for an official visit to China as tensions heightened in the South China Sea over disputed islands. Preparing to meet some of China's military leaders, Gerry Brownlee said he hoped to understand China's views on several "regional and global issues."

This week, Jane's Information Group said China completed the runway on Fiery Cross Reef, its largest base in the Spratly Islands." The completion of the runway could enable China to accelerate construction on the new island and to start patrols over the disputed islands," Jane's reported.

Fiery Cross Reef, the biggest new landmass China had built in the Spratlys, was a possible future hub for Chinese operations in the Sea, Jane's added. The development came as Jane's also said an unidentified hull in an advanced state of construction at Dalian shipyard could be China's first indigenous aircraft carrier.

The Spratly Islands dispute has embroiled China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think-tank said this week the risk of war between China was Vietnam rising.

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The CFR said rising tensions could even trigger a "serious military confrontation between the two countries in the next twelve to eighteen months." But New Zealand's relationship with China was on the upswing, Mr Brownlee said."

The New Zealand - China defence relationship has grown in recent years, and I look forward to engaging with representatives of the Chinese military on how that might continue," he said in a statement. Mr Brownlee would visit Chinese capital Beijing and make a speech at the National Defence University there.

Mr Brownlee's office said he'd also visit General Fan Changlong, the Central Military Commission vice-chairman. A visit to China's Minister of National Defence General Chang Wanquan was also planned Mr Brownlee would then head south to the Chengdu Military District, meeting with commanders and visiting a military base.

He also planned to meet the governor of Sichuan province, and visit a memorial park commemorating the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. China said on Thursday it would host defence ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) next month.

According to Reuters, the informal summit in mid-October would take place in Beijing and China invited defence ministers from all ten ASEAN members. The Spratly Islands dispute was expected to be a major topic at the meeting.