During a speech outlining her vision for the relationship with China, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta made the striking assertion that her country would resist efforts by its allies, including Australia, to expand the role of Five Eyes in responding to China.
The remarks contrast starkly with Australia’s decision this week to scrap Victoria’s Belt and Road deal with Beijing and the declaration by the British Parliament that China is carrying out a genocide against its Uyghur population.
Indeed, Mahuta’s decision is the latest in a steady drifting of New Zealand away from the hardening posture towards China adopted by other Western states, particularly its partner nations in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, America, Australia, Britain, and Canada. They have drafted joint Five Eyes statements decrying China’s human rights abuses and the subjugation of Hong Kong.
It is indicative of China’s leverage over New Zealand that Mahuta’s decision also follows the recent upgrading of New Zealand’s China Free Trade Agreement. It is a lucrative deal for a vulnerable New Zealand economy recovering from pandemic recession.
Ultimately, the splintering of New Zealand from Five Eyes on the question of how to address China is a sad, if predictable, consequence of Beijing’s enduring strategy to coerce and undermine the vital partnerships between liberal democratic states. Yet for Australia, it is also a warning that the bilateral relationship requires an urgent reset if New Zealand, and other Pacific states, are to be pulled back from China’s orbit.
While its activities are typically kept out of sight, the Five Eyes grouping is the world’s most powerful intelligence partnership, and it has a transformative impact on the international distribution of power. The Five Eyes is not merely a partnership for the sharing of state secrets; it is a network of national security experts collectively testing and challenging each other’s assessments about the biggest challenges facing our world, from nuclear weapons to organised crime.
It is appropriate we debate this in the wake of Anzac Day because Five Eyes is a key pillar to the security of the liberal order that countries such as Australia and New Zealand fought to establish during World War I and World War II. For this reason it is a top target for China, which also seeks to stifle new groupings such as the Quad – the security dialogue between the US, Australia, Japan and India – and President Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracy.
After all, China is a lonely power, with few if any real friends in the world, so it cannot match the Five Eyes grouping in its capacity to co-operate on intelligence, technology and diplomacy. As the smaller of the Five Eyes members, New Zealand was always the natural target for China’s coercive efforts to divide and degrade the Five Eyes partnership.
To this end, China’s freezing out of Australian ministers and its arbitrary disruption of Australian trade has doubtless been nervously watched in Wellington and New Zealand has calibrated how it approaches its own relationship with China.
Of the Five Eyes members, New Zealand has been the slowest to adjust to China’s aggressive international strategy. This can be attributed in part to New Zealand’s traditional disposition of eschewing confrontation in favour of constructive diplomacy. However, the sheer scale of New Zealand’s economic dependence on China has also generated a wilful blindness to China’s increasingly bellicose behaviour in the vain hope that it can chart a middle path with China where others, such as Australia, have failed: one where New Zealand is able to sustain a high degree of access to Chinese markets without having to compromise its principles or its sovereignty.
Jacinda Ardern is the latest in a succession of New Zealand prime ministers who have sought to distinguish her country as a principled, honest broker on the world stage, with a reputation as a friendly country committed to constructive, peaceful diplomacy. Yet minister Mahuta’s objection to expanding Five Eyes, and her vacillation on joining other democratic blocs, makes a mockery of New Zealand’s tradition of principled activism by showing a willingness to bargain with its international reputation and the security of the Pacific in order to obtain short-term economic benefits.
After all, the most vital activism for New Zealand to undertake today is to ensure that international rules are not determined by authoritarian bullies like China but that they are based on international law, respect for human rights and free and open markets.
Sadly the Australia-New Zealand relationship has grown distant and churlish in recent years as leaders on both sides have sparred over the deportation of New Zealand citizens, climate change, refugees and brinkmanship over pandemic border closures. In light of this distance perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Australian diplomats were reportedly blind-sided last week by Mahuta’s announcement, but we should be disappointed.
Australia urgently needs to move to reset the relationship with a concerted diplomatic campaign to help New Zealand diversify its markets away from China and strengthen its resilience to foreign interference.
Furthermore, while New Zealand is backing away from Five Eyes, Australia should make it a top priority to encourage New Zealand to join the Quad. As a small nation New Zealand has been more vulnerable and susceptible than most to China’s Faustian bargains. With help from its friends it can be empowered to protect its sovereignty.
This is urgent, because if Australia can’t protect New Zealand from China’s coercion we have little hope of protecting the smaller Pacific states.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald – see HERE.