Mixed Sight: New Zealand, The Five Eyes And China – OpEd


The Five Eyes arrangement between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has always resembled a segregated, clandestine club.  Focused on the sharing of intelligence between countries of supposedly like mind, it has shown that even its own citizens cannot be guaranteed protection from the zeal of surveillance. 

In recent years, the club has become a font of other intentions, nudging beyond the group’s original remit.  Since 2013, the intelligence alliance has seen more ministerial consultations between the countries.  In 2014, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott openly mentioned the partnership’s existence on national radio.  “It’s been around for some six decades and under this arrangement there is already very, very full and complete sharing.”  Two years later, it appeared in the Australian Defence White Paper with explicit enthusiasm. The authors noted that Australia’s membership of the group supplied it “with information superiority and intelligence cooperation that is a vital input to our defence planning.”

In 2020, meetings taking place between the five countries, notably at the Defence, Foreign Affairs and Treasury level, were officially identified as “Five Eyes”.  In May that year, the defence ministers from all five countries accepted a broader role for all in not only dealing with shared security challenges but “advance their shared values of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.”  

This move struck Ben Scott of the Lowy Institute as both mistaken and even counterproductive.  “It unnecessarily limits their membership and risks blurring the critical distinction between intelligence and policy.”  Well and good that cooperation should take place on a certain level (Scott approves, for instance, of those cases where “intelligence insights” between the powers can yield fruit) but any international coalition worth its constructive salt needed to be “as broad as possible.”

With the Five Eyes ever trained on the ambitions of China, its members have chosen to speak with one voice on such matters as human rights.  This has had the distorting effect of assuming that the five states all have identical concerns in their dealings with Beijing.  

In November last year, the foreign ministers from the five issued a joint statement on Hong Kong: “Following the imposition of the National Security Law and postponement of September’s Legislative Council elections, this decision further undermines Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms.”  The actions constituted “a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Certain powers within the alliance have simply chosen the position that what is in the US interest regarding China is in everybody’s interest.  In what can only be regarded as a fit of unspeakable toadying to Washington, the Australian contribution has been very much directed against its own interests.  China’s trade retaliations against Canberra across various goods and products has been savage: anti-subsidy and anti-dumping measures on Australian barley; the blacklisting of red meat exporters; the unofficial ban on Australian wine.  Bleeding and limping, Australia finds itself seeking redress at the World Trade Organisation through the body’s Dispute Settlement Understanding process.

New Zealand, however, is proving stubborn on any expansive role for the intelligence club, especially regarding China.  Last January, its Trade Minister Damian O’Connor felt inclined to rebuke Australia for not showing due deference to Beijing.  “If [Australia] were to follow us and show respect, I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time and be cautious with wording, they too could hopefully be in a similar situation [with China].”  The comments came in the wake of an upgrade of the 2008 free trade deal between the PRC and New Zealand.   Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta cheekily suggested that her country might mediate between the two countries.

In a speech on NZ-China relations delivered at the New Zealand China Council in Wellington on April 19, Mahuta acknowledged that China had been “our largest trading partner since 2017.”  She drew comparisons between the auspicious guardians of both countries: the serpentine aquatic creatures known as the Taniwha in Maori folklore and the Dragon of Chinese tradition.  “The Taniwha, like the Dragon, has the ability to understand the essence of its environment and changing conditions – as well as the ability to adapt and survive.”  There was an acknowledgment that neither the Dragon nor Taniwha could agree on all points and interests. 

On human rights, New Zealand would adopt a “consistent, country agnostic manner.  We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights.”  As to openly commenting on how it pertained to China, she saw little problem with public pronouncements on Hong Kong or the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.  “At times we will do this in association with others that share our views and sometimes we will act alone.”

In comments addressed to the press after her speech, Mahuta admitted that New Zealand needed to be weaned off its heavy reliance on China.  “If we look at the context of our relationship with China and China as a major trading market, we know that we need to ensure that businesses in New Zealand have greater resilience through their market connections, their trade platform with countries beyond China.”

On the issue of the Five Eyes arrangements, however, Mahuta was adamant.  “We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship.”  It had a “specific purpose” and would not be invoked “as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues.”  Preference would be shown towards “multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern similarly felt that “a security intelligence platform” had its purposes; an umbrella of nations with “shared values” should be necessarily broader.  “We should be collectively raising issues – be it Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, the United States – or say, Germany and others.”

The independent position taken by the Ardern government caused more than a flutter in the UK and Australia.  The Times regarded this break with the other Anglophone allies as a reversal of “an agreement to expand the network’s remit.”  But none of this suggests that New Zealand has, in any way, fallen prostrate before Chinese overlords. New Zealand remains, as Mahuta has stated, concerned about China’s use of sanctions against Australia and its “aggressive, assertive and emboldened” position.  The narrative it has embraced, rather, is one of middling caution rather than outright bluster, choosing a more cautionary approach over speaking through the forum of an intelligence sharing agreement.   That relationship, Mahuta has reiterated, “was set up for a specific purpose, and it’s not the case that we need to invoke the Five Eyes response every time there’s an issue with China.”  Other members of the Five Eyes should take note.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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