Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand liberal prime minister has offended devotees of the Anglosphere by indicating she is not prepared to take her country into the kind of trade war with China that Australia has found itself facing.
Her stance, asserting her country’s sovereignty, has potentially deep implications for the “Five Eyes” alliance, the intelligence sharing partnership that emerged after the second world war and blossomed in the cold war. Indeed some say New Zealand has confirmed itself as the weak link in the intelligence chain that it joined with the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia.
The cause of the upset was Ardern’s relatively new foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta insisting that she did not want New Zealand’s complex relationship with China to be defined by Five Eyes. She suggested that New Zealand needed to “maintain and respect” China’s “particular customs, traditions and values’”.
At a joint press conference with her Australian counterpart Marise Payne on Thursday she was more explicit still. Mahuta said: “The Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework. It’s not necessary, all the time on every issue, to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues in the human rights space.”
Payne acknowledged that New Zealand had the right to determine its own response to human rights issues, but made the case for speaking out: “We also have to acknowledge that China’s outlook – the nature of China’s external engagement both in our region and globally – has changed in recent years.”
The dispute on how to handle China, and through which institutions, has been rumbling for some time. In January the New Zealand minister, Damien O’Connor, suggested Australia follow his example and show China a little more respect, adding that a little diplomacy from time to time did not come amiss. Now Ardern and the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison are, according to reports, to meet in Canberra in two weeks to discuss the issue.
Ardern in her first term ceded much foreign policy to her foreign minister Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First Party, but seems willing to take the helm in her second term.
New Zealand, like Australia, trades heavily with China, with 29% of its export revenue dependent on China. It has been New Zealand’s biggest trading partner since 2017, leading Ardern to navigate evidence of Chinese political and technological interference gingerly. It has further signed a free trade deal with China, and over the past few months opted out of joining five eyes declarations condemning China’s abuse of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
It has also seen how Australia’s willingness to challenge China has led to severe trade repercussions. The dispute is still raging, with the Australian government on Thursday tearing up Victoria state’s Belt and Road agreements with China, deeming them as not in the national interest.
But Mahuta’s remarks may also disappoint a breed of Brexiter that foresaw the Anglosphere and Five Eyes as the future beating heart of a diplomatic intelligence alliance against China. The most recent book on Five Eyes by Anthony Wells (Casemate) argues on China: “the wise use of naval power is critical to keeping the economic arteries open. The Five eyes can become the centrepiece of the intelligence gathering and analysis to support these operations’’
There had in recent months been some signs the UK, out of Europe but eager for new alliances in the Indo-Pacific, had been pushing the Five Eyes in a more political direction, blurring the distinction between policy and intelligence. In November 2020 the five countries for instance issued a joint statement condemning the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. The UK has also been angling for Japan, one of the countries most informed on China’s security intentions, to join the alliance.
Perhaps as the smallest of the five countries in the alliance, New Zealand could see itself being dragooned into an expanded and more ambitious alliance over which it would have little control. Ardern herself had merely suggested five eyes might not be the most appropriate vehicle with which to issue statements on China, asking aloud: “Is that best done under the banner of a grouping of countries around a security intelligence platform, or is it best done around a group of countries with shared values – some of which might not belong to that five eyes partnership?”
Ciaran Martin, the former chief executive of the National Cybersecurity Centre, part of GCHQ, has insisted the idea that New Zealand had endangered the foundations of the Five Eyes network was to misunderstand its specific security role. He wrote on Twitter: “Five Eyes governments could choose to expand the alliance for example coordinate foreign policy on China. But they have not, yet, and it would be a huge change in how the Five Eyes works. For now, New Zealand is not opposing anything anyone has actually (publicly) proposed”.
But Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, questioned Ardern’s rationale. Five Eyes was an “extremely trusted and long-serving intelligence-sharing arrangement” and that was always going to translate into coordinating policy as well.