NATO held its Madrid Summit on June 29, and several alliance partners – Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea – took part for the first time.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke of the need for a rules-based international order and said a China-Russia alliance and China’s “growing assertiveness” are threats.
In a first for a New Zealand political leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed NATO’s 28 members. She called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a war of Russia vs. all those who hold a basic sense of humanity and chose to act on it.”
Ardern said China has become “more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.”
“Here, we must respond to the actions we see,” she said. “We must stand firm on the rules-based order, call for diplomatic engagement and speak out against human rights abuses at all times when and where we see them.”
That prompted a response from China’s embassy in New Zealand.
“We have taken note of the relevant comment made by the New Zealand side at the NATO session, which includes some misguided accusations against China, claiming that ‘China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms.’ That allegation is wrong and thus regrettable,” the embassy stated.
“China is firmly committed to upholding multilateralism, supporting the international system with the United Nations at its core and the international order based on the Charter of the U.N., international law and the universally recognized basic norms governing international relations.”
Problem is, China’s actual behavior exposes this as false. China has repeatedly flouted rules and norms and bullied other countries, particularly in the South China Sea.
New Zealand has been less critical of China than other Western countries. However, according to Reuters, New Zealand is increasingly concerned about a security pact between China and the nearby Solomon Islands.
The Solomon Islands insists it will not allow China to build a military base there. But analysts say New Zealand fears Beijing might use the pact to gain a strategic foothold and eventually establish a military presence.
There is also ambiguity surrounding China’s efforts to upgrade a naval base in Cambodia, which, according to anonymous Western officials, China will be able to use exclusively.
A Chinese official in Beijing told The Washington Post that “a portion of the base” would be used by “the Chinese military,” contradicting claims it would be only for the Cambodian Navy.
But if Beijing’s intentions in Cambodia and the Solomon Islands remain somewhat unclear, its persistent aggression in the South China Sea – most of which Beijing claims as its own – is abundantly documented.
On June 10, the Philippines’ Foreign Ministry filed a diplomatic protest against China’s actions near the Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal. It was the second complaint that week, and the Philippines’ 300th diplomatic protest against Chinese actions that the Philippines regards as illegal.
The shoal, in the disputed Spratly Islands, falls within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and is militarily occupied by the Philippines.
The Philippines' Foreign Ministry said Chinese Coast Guard vessels had “shadowed Philippine boats on a rotation and re-provision mission,” the Philippines News Agency reported. China was accused of illegally fishing in the area and installing buoys and fishing nets “that blocked the shoal’s entrance.”
“The 2016 Arbitral Award affirmed that Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China has no right to fish, monitor, or interfere with (the Philippines’) legitimate activities therein,” the Philippines Foreign Ministry said.
China rejects that 2016 ruling, in which the Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rebuked China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea and reaffirmed the Philippines' right to operate within its EEZ.
In November 2021, China’s Coast Guard blocked and used water cannons against Philippine resupply ships headed to the shoal, forcing them to turn back.
On June 9, the Philippines “protested the return of over 100 Chinese vessels illegally operating in the waters in and around Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef,” which also falls within the country’s EEZ.
On May 31, the Philippines protested what it called the Chinese Coast Guard’s “harassment” of a Taiwanese ship with Filipino scientists carrying out research in the South China Sea.
China seized nearby Mischief Reef in 1995. The Hague ruled that the reef is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. And China seized the Scarborough Shoal, some 137 miles east of the Philippines’ island of Luzon, and has captured islands and reefs from Vietnam.
Vietnam accused China of violating its sovereignty by carrying out military drills on June 19 near Woody Island, a Chinese-occupied rock in the Paracel archipelago. China has sunk Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracels.
The China Coast Guard and “paramilitary fishing fleets” frequently stop at Woody Island before heading elsewhere in the South China Sea “to assert China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea,” Radio Free Asia, a Voice of America sister organization, has reported.
As Polygraph.info and others have reported, China has sent warships to escort illegal fishing expeditions. China’s fishing fleets are notorious for aggressive tactics, including ramming competitors and foreign patrol ships, and have systematically engaged in illegal fishing as far afield as South America.
In March, a top U.S. Navy commander said China had militarized at least three islands in the South China Sea, equipping them with “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment, and fighter jets,” The Associated Press reported.
The commander told AP that China’s actions over the past 20 years constituted “the largest military buildup since World War II by the PRC (People’s Republic of China).”
While ignoring other countries' legitimate territorial claims in the South China Sea, China says it is fully entitled to develop the islands as it wishes.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says China has established 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. The initiative is a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.