The Malaysian prime minister wasted no time in warning Jacinda Ardern of the dangers of China's presence in the South China Sea at formal talks at the East Asia Summit Thursday night.
After less than thirty seconds of general remarks, PM Mahathir Bin Mohamad talked frankly about his geopolitical concerns.
"Although New Zealand is quite far from the South China Sea, what happens to the South China Sea will eventually have some impact on other countries around there."
Mohamad told them he hoped the international interest in the need for freedom and navigation would prompt a change of tack from China.
“We accept that warships can come there but they should not be stationed there …"
The frank remarks appeared to have caught the PM and deputy Winston Peters by surprise.
Soon after, Peters was seen whispering to Ardern’s chief of staff, then media were ejected from discussions by a NZ official.
Malaysia-NZ bilateral full clip
Ardern says, “Usually we have a bit of an introductory comments and usually the media leave, it was just obvious to me that the prime minister decided that 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 taking images, it was just a natural opportunity."
Ardern says the comments by the Malaysian PM were “absolutely not” a warning and that his remarks were consistent with what he’d already shared publicly at plenary meetings.
“Our view is that everyone needs to uphold international law. There are multiple claimants, we’ve never taken sides. We’ve called for all parties to uphold international law including conventions around the law of the sea.”
The exchange comes amidst rising tensions and conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.