New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has stayed out of the ugly foreign policy questions hanging over the Indo-Pacific in her first significant foreign policy speech of the year.

The big immediate question hanging over New Zealand foreign policy, whether New Zealand will sign up to pillar two of Aukus, didn’t get a mention, but Mahuta addressed head-on other concerns in the region, raising concerns over escalating tensions in the South China Sea and the “increasing tension in the Taiwan Strait” – although she pointedly did not take a side on those issues.

Instead, the speech Why the Pacific Way Matters for Regional Security set out what guides Mahuta’s thinking, which was resolute regarding not taking sides in the increasingly fractious geopolitical world, but made the case for taking a position on each issue on its merits.

The problem, which Mahuta hinted at, comes when you discover that taking each issue independently nevertheless means you end up on the “side” of some countries more than others.

“Independence should not be confused with isolation, neutrality, or a fixed-pre-determination of how we will act on a particular issue,” Mahuta said.

“It leads to policy approaches that align with our primary interests, and often with that of our like-minded partners,” Mahuta said before name-checking Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Japan.

Mahuta addressed the issue of China head-on, but did not progress from the longstanding New Zealand position of agreeing where possible and disagreeing where necessary.

“We have a mature relationship with China, underscored by our willingness to continue to engage on the matters where we find common ground and those that are difficult and challenging.

“Nevertheless, as we defend the international rules, norms and standards that we rely on for peaceful co-existence and shared prosperity, we express our view if these norms are ignored,” Mahuta said.

Perhaps gesturing at the increasingly hawkish attitude displayed by Western powers, Mahuta said New Zealand had “stayed the course in our approach with China”.

“Being predictable, consistent and respectful does not mean we cannot and should not speak our mind,” she said.

Mahuta added that this approach wasn’t taken just with China, but with all countries.

“We would take the same stance if confronted with actions of any state that did not align with the international rules and norms of our interests,” she said.

China hung over another section of the speech, in which Mahuta stressed the Pacific “can provide for its own security”.

This has been a concern since the Solomon Islands inked a controversial security pact with China last year.

“The Pacific Island Forum Leaders reiterated in their joint statement last year that the region should take a ‘family first’ approach to regional security,” Mahuta said.

The speech was meant to be delivered to members of the diplomatic corps – ambassadors to New Zealand – at Waitangi this year, setting out Mahuta’s vision for New Zealand in the world.

But that was delayed by the extreme weather of January and February, forcing Mahuta to postpone until now.

Mahuta said New Zealand was not afraid to stick up for what it valued, including nuclear non-proliferation and a nuclear-free Pacific.

A nod that Aukus’ nuclear propulsion elements go no further – as some in the Pacific initially feared it might.

Russia was name-checked for the fact it is representative of New Zealand deciding to impose sanctions on its own, venturing beyond the umbrella of the United Nations if necessary.

Mahuta described its exploitation to the UN Security Council as “cynical” and an “affront to the rules-based order”