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Australian officials say they were blindsided when New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta criticised efforts to pressure China through the 70-year-old spy alliance known as the “Five Eyes”.
“We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues,” Mahuta said on Monday.
The language is carefully couched but it has real consequences. Our nearest neighbour did not inform Australia of its position before Mahuta this week voiced her government’s discomfort about the “expanding remit” of Five Eyes.
While Wellington’s conspicuous absence from a few joint statements had caused unease in Canberra over the past year, Australian officials did not know about New Zealand’s official opposition to using the spy network to exert diplomatic pressure on Beijing.
* Japan should join Five Eyes intelligence network, says Australian ambassador
* Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand’s new stance on Five Eyes isn’t a backdown to China
* The taniwha and the dragon: Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta talks China in major speech
* Without evidence of real progress, NZ’s foreign policy towards China looks increasingly empty
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta delivers a speech on NZ-China relations at the NZ China Council in Wellington.
While there have been other incidents over the past year demonstrating how strained trans-Tasman relations have become, this development is likely to cause diplomatic friction in the coming weeks.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can reveal Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will visit New Zealand in two weeks to meet with his counterpart Jacinda Ardern. The future of Five Eyes will be a hot topic of discussion.
The issue will be discussed at senior levels before then, with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and International Development Minister Zed Seselja flying to New Zealand on Wednesday to meet their counterparts.
While no one in the Australian government is seriously suggesting New Zealand is at risk of being booted out of the intelligence-sharing network, Canberra and Washington are concerned by Wellington’s attempt to curtail its expansion. In Canberra, joking references to the “Four Eyes” have only increased in recent months.
The Five Eyes group – which includes the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – was formed in 1941 to share secrets and signals intelligence during World War II.
Over the past few years, it has gradually expanded into a diplomatic grouping, issuing joint statements criticising China over crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. While New Zealand has joined many of these statements, it was notably absent from some over the past year.
Tensions between Canberra and Wellington have been building for years, with Ardern repeatedly criticising Australia for deporting Kiwi citizens and cancelling the citizenship of dual citizens accused of terrorism. But it is the question of how to handle the growing assertiveness of China that has caused the biggest frictions.
In December last year, Mahuta offered to mediate a truce between Australia and China and said both parties needed to “concede in some areas where they are currently not seeing eye to eye”. Months later, New Zealand’s new Trade Minister Damien O’Connor suggested Australia should speak with more “respect” and “diplomacy” towards China.
Senior officials in the Australian government repeatedly put these interventions down to rookie ministers still learning their brief, and did not necessarily see them as the views of Ardern. However, the latest comments from Mahuta are different.
Australian officials were put off by the suggestion that New Zealand was charting a more “independent” course; they believe there’s nothing independent about using your trade relationship with China as a justification for not criticising Beijing.
It is Australia, they argue, who has been the one standing on its two feet: the first to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from next-generation networks, first to enact foreign interference laws and ahead of the curve on blocking foreign investment in critical national infrastructure.
Some Australian officials also dispute Wellington’s assertion that there has been a significant “expansion” of Five Eyes, saying it has always been a diplomatic grouping.
But there is also sympathy for Wellington’s position in Canberra. New Zealand has not yet faced the economic coercion, or the widespread espionage and foreign interference activity, that Australia has endured. Wellington is at least three years behind where Canberra is at and may only just be waking up to the threat.
While Ardern spoke with a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday, she backed in her foreign minister by suggesting that Five Eyes was not the most appropriate forum for issuing joint statements criticising China. She said the statements could be issued by wider groupings of countries or could be as narrow as Australia and New Zealand.
“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?” Ardern said.
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said Five Eyes was an “extremely trusted and long-serving intelligence-sharing arrangement” and that was always going to translate into coordinating policy as well.
“If you trust countries enough to share your most sensitive secrets with them, then surely you are going to often coordinate with them on areas of shared interest,” he said.
“The point that Mahuta made, and Ardern has reinforced, is that New Zealand would look at other arrangements for coordinating policy arrangements. Well of course that’s the case, and Australia has been doing the same thing, whether it’s through the QUAD, bilaterals, trilaterals, etc. If that’s New Zealand’s position then that’s not so gravely at odds with Australia’s position or anyone else’s.”
New Zealand’s bid to contain the Five Eyes goes against the grain of where the group is headed. Not only is the grouping being expanded into a strategic and economic partnership to counter China, but countries including Japan want to join it.
Professor Medcalf said an ideal future arrangement would be “Five Eyes-plus” whereby other countries such as Japan and France are incrementally brought into the intelligence-sharing arrangement but cautioned “you can’t substitute for 70 years of trust overnight”.
“Although Japan is a logical place to look, you have 70 years of institutionalised and highly personalised trust among intelligence and security agencies in the existing Five Eyes countries,” he says. “Our intelligence and security agencies trust the agencies of their Five Eyes partners almost as much as they trust themselves.”
Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Programme, said New Zealand had been “more insulated” to some of the more serious threats of China’s growing assertiveness than other Fives Eyes nations.
He said there were clearly tensions in the relationship between Australia and New Zealand and he hoped face-to-face meetings between ministers and prime ministers could sort out the differences.
“Maybe these are strongly held convictions from the New Zealanders and it may reflect the start of a growing schism in the Five Eyes community,” he said.
For the time being, Canberra wants to ensure that does not eventuate.