The government is right to resist attempts to turn the Five Eyes Intelligence sharing agreement into a wider political alliance. However, given the growing disposition of some its partners, it is going to become increasingly difficult for it to continue to do so.
The United States, Britain and their ever-trusty pet Australia are becoming more and more focused on what a rapidly developing China is likely to mean for future Pacific and ultimately global security. More benign Five Eyes partners like New Zealand and Canada are being pressured to join their increasingly activist stance against the resurgent China, and to make the Five Eyes agreement more of an alliance than an intelligence sharing arrangement.
The significant extension of the role of the Five Eyes agreement such a move would entail goes beyond the scope of the original UKUSA agreement for the sharing of joint signals intelligence that gave rise to it in the first place. That agreement had its origins in the Allied Second World War code-breaking operations at the now famous Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. When it was formalised in the Cold War environment of the early 1950s it was effectively the intelligence component of the regional collective security agreements like NATO, SEATO and ANZUS. Other parties to the original UKUSA agreement included Norway, Denmark and West Germany, but they did not become members of the Five Eyes “club”.
Over the years New Zealand has been a valuable provider of signals intelligence to the Five Eyes partners. Our geographic location assists our interception capabilities considerably, which explains our value to the other partners. It is also the reason why, despite the somewhat bullying talk being directed our way at present, New Zealand is unlikely to be expelled from the arrangement, even if we do not comply with the current demands to broaden its scope.
But that does not make the issue of China and how to deal with it any less difficult for us. The prevailing Western view, heightened considerably during the Trump years, that China is now less a force for stability than a potential enemy poses real problems for a country like ours, now so dependent on China for our economic prosperity. Since the conclusion of the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement in 2008 China has become our largest trading partner in goods and second largest trading partner overall. No New Zealand government is going to deliberately put that arrangement at risk, given the wider implications for our way of life.
It was easier for New Zealand to resist the “for us or against us” stance on China during the belligerence of the Trump Administration, because it was so extreme. However, it is likely to become more difficult if, as the early signs suggest, the more benign Biden Administration maintains the same broad stance.
Unfortunately, the government’s current attempts to explain its position look clumsy and inept. Telling other countries to treat China with more respect, as the Trade Minister has done, makes us look like grovelling sycophants. Using similes like the taniwha and the dragon to characterise the current relationship between New Zealand and China as our Foreign Minister did recently, looks like meaningless waffle, even to those skilled in the art of diplomatic double-speak.
As an independent nation, New Zealand has every right to form its own views about its relationship with China, and to progress those as best we see fit. We do need to be careful though that in doing so we do not turn a blind eye to everything China does. Its treatment of its Uighur minority is a case in point. There appear to be obvious breaches of human rights occurring here, and New Zealand’s continued silence, given our overall approach to upholding international human rights is simply not credible. Similarly with Taiwan – another important New Zealand trade partner. As a fellow small nation in the shadow of a big neighbour, New Zealand could be expected to uphold the rights of small nations to self-determination, in the event of any moves by China to invade Taiwan at a future point.
The current anxiety amongst other Five Eyes partners about New Zealand is not so much that we are pursuing our own national interests in respect of China – most countries understand that and do likewise – but that we are allowing ourselves to become seen as a vocal, uncritical supporter of China. Every statement the government makes on the relationship seems to be supportive of China’s position and unaccepting of any criticism of it. Naïve, inexperienced, foolish – call it what you may – that is not helping to advance New Zealand’s position in any way in the eyes of other longer-term friends and allies.
New Zealand can still continue to play its part as a member of the Five Eyes agreement and progress its wider relationship with China, if it wants, but it just needs to stop appearing so loudly partisan about it. There will inevitably be challenges to our position – that is the nature of the course of international relations – but our primary role should be working to reduce those challenges, not aggravating them by continually drawing attention to our increasing dependence on China the way we are at present. Quiet diplomacy rather than loud-hailer virtue signalling is the far preferable course to follow here.
Right now, New Zealand should just be getting on with pursuing its interests quietly, determinedly, and unobtrusively. The resort to finger-wagging warnings about international conduct, and obfuscating references to ancient symbols we have seen of late are not signs of independence. They simply make our government look like international “babes in arms”, that much easier to laugh at and discount.