New Zealand leaders were caught on the back foot during a meeting with Malaysia’s Prime Minister after he launched into a warning around the disputes over the South China Sea.
Mahathir bin Mohamad took Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters by surprise when he began laying out his geopolitical concerns in front of media, during a bilateral meeting in Singapore.
Media were hastily ushered from the room as he talked about China’s actions in the contested waters, on Wednesday.
There seemed to be some confusion about the protocol, with Mahathir launching into the meaty part of the meeting with media present, leaving New Zealand’s delegation in an awkward spot.
During a bilateral meeting, it is customary for media to stay for a quick photo of leaders shaking hands, and some general opening remarks, before leaving the room.
As the host, it was up to New Zealand to direct how the meeting played out, and after a stern look from Winston Peters, followed by a word, then what may have counted as a glare from the Prime Minister, a staffer asked New Zealand and Malaysian media to leave the room, and briskly moved them out, with an air of panic.
While Mahathir’s comments were not suprising in their content – he had raised his concerns earlier in the East Asia Summit (EAS), at plenaries and with US Vice President Mike Pence, it was clear the New Zealand delegation did not expect the issue to be discussed effectively in public.
Malaysia is a claimant in the South China Sea, and the 93-year-old leader seemed happy to make his position clear in full public glare.
After less than 30 seconds of general remarks, Mahathir started laying out his concerns.
“Although New Zealand is quite far from the South China Sea, what happens in the South China Sea will eventually have some impact on all the countries around there,” he said.
“Of course we are very close, for us freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca is very important.”
Mahathir went on to say he hoped the international interest in the need for freedom of navigation would help change China’s approach.
Mahathir began to talk about the stationing of warships in the area, when media were removed from the room.
During a press conference immediately after the meeting, Ardern was forced to do damage control on what appeared to be a messy situation.
She downplayed the hasty removal of media, saying she just decided it was time for the leaders to get on with the meeting.
“Usually we have a few introductory comments and then the media leave; it was just obvious to me that the Prime Minister decided he was just going to keep on going, and get stuck into the substantive part.
“We had to make a decision at some point that the media might tire of standing there and taking images,” she said.
Ardern said Malaysia’s remarks were not “absolutely not” a warning to New Zealand, but a discussion on Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea.
New Zealand did not need anyone to point out the issue for the region, Ardern said.
“We’re very, very aware of it, which is why we consistently raise the South China Sea, as well.”
New Zealand’s position on the issue had been “utterly consistent”, and the country had never taken sides, she said, adding all claimants should uphold international law, and the law of the sea.
Ardern said those involved should de-escalate tension and rely on dialogue to resolve the issue, adding that during the EAS, leaders had spoken about the claimants forming a code of conduct.
When asked again about why Malaysia felt it necessary to raise the possible impact on New Zealand, Ardern said media were “probably getting a little bit too excited” about the comments.
“Regardless of whether it’s right next door, we’re as affected as anyone else, because we have the movement of vessels through that sea. So of course it affects us; it affects the region.”
The exchange comes as tensions in the South China Sea continue to rise.
Last month a Chinese warship passed close to the United States destroyer USS Decatur. This led to the US calling on China to return to maritime codes of conduct.
Ardern met China Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday, where the pair spoke mainly about trade, and the upgrade to the free trade agreement between New Zealand and China.
By Laura Walters