Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee got a stern rebuke from China when he made the mildest of observations about Beijing's expansionist maritime policy.

At a security forum in China, Brownlee made a perfectly legitimate remark when he reminded his audience that New Zealand, as a small trading nation, was dependent on the mechanisms of international law and especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The senior minister told last week's gathering: "We oppose actions that undermine peace and erode trust and would like to see all parties actively take steps to reduce those tensions."

Brownlee was referring to China's construction of artificial islands - including a military-grade air strip - in the South China Sea, activity which has rattled nerves around the region. The reclamation runs counter to the security and territorial claims of other countries in the region, and has been subject to a ruling by an international court in favour of the Philippines.


The minister made New Zealand's position clear with his comment that "we support the arbitral process and believe that countries have the right to seek that international resolution."

In themselves, these are hardly objectionable comments and spell out quite clearly New Zealand's enduring commitment to UN instruments to arbitrate in disputed matters.

Given the profile of the event that Brownlee was attending it is fair to assume that the remarks would have been carefully calibrated and made with the full knowledge of the Government's foreign affairs advisers.

But the Chinese took swift exception and criticised Brownlee. Fu Ying, chairwoman of China's foreign affairs committee for parliament, followed hot on the heels of Brownlee's comments saying that Beijing hoped "that countries who are not involved in the disputes respect the countries who are having the disputes to ... work among themselves."

She didn't leave it there, going on to say that "outside involvement .... can only complicate the differences and sometimes even add to the tension."

China's response is unfortunate and fails to acknowledge that New Zealand does have genuine interests in calming maritime tensions in one of the world's busiest sea lanes. It is not currying favour with the United States to object to China's provocative claims of sovereignty, when a lawful tribunal has ruled that large swathes of the seas in question are effectively neutral territory.

China has brushed aside the tribunal ruling, and continues to assert its rights to the hotly-contested waters. Brownlee was careful to remind his hosts that New Zealand and China share a close relationship.

New Zealand, he stated, did not see its defence relationships with Washington and Beijing as mutually exclusive, and remained committed to working with both superpowers. He could hardly have expressed it plainer terms, and he has nothing to apologise for.

It is refreshing and somewhat surprising to hear a New Zealand politician stating clearly when the interests of the country diverge sharply from the ambitions and behaviour of far more powerful nations.

The Government could yet take a constructive step. The forum where Brownlee came under fire heard a call for an international summit to tackle the dispute. It is an idea worth exploring, and supporting.