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Andrew Little, the minister responsible for New Zealand’s spy agencies, says “periodic opinion pieces” about our position in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance being compromised are wrong.
In a speech on intelligence and national security at Victoria University of Wellington on Thursday evening, Little said the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group of nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – is misunderstood.
“Perhaps nothing about intelligence is more misunderstood or mythologised than our membership in the UKUSA Agreement, which is a multilateral agreement for signals intelligence cooperation and is better known as the Five Eyes,” Little said.
“The Five Eyes is a partnership of sovereign nation states. It is not a supranational organisation. No partner is superior or inferior to the others.”
Little said both of New Zealand’s spy agencies, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) make “unique and highly-valued contributions to these arrangements”.
New Zealand was labelled the “soft underbelly” of the Five Eyes spy network in a Canadian report in 2018, which contributed to a perception that China has too much influence on New Zealand, due to $33 billion worth of free trade.
A top senior intelligence official, who was not named, told the Financial Times last year that New Zealand was “compromised” by China, and its Five Eyes membership was “on the edge of viability”.
Speculation ramped up when Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta earlier this year said New Zealand was “uncomfortable” with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes. In other words, she wanted the Five Eyes to stick to security and intelligence – not politics and diplomacy.
It came after New Zealand was noticably missing from Five Eyes statements on Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong.
Mahuta’s comments sparked a frenzy of commentary overseas, with Australian officials reportedly “blindsided”, and high-profile commentators like Nigel Farrage in the UK speculating that New Zealand was launching a “new close alliance” with China.
New Zealand’s position was questioned again in September when Australia, the United States and the UK announced the AUKUS pact, a deal in which our cousins across the Tasman would get kitted out with nuclear submarines.
New Zealand wasn’t approached to join the pact due to our nuclear-free stance, though Dame Annette King, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Australia, has suggested we could join to boost cyber technologies.
Little dampened down the dramatics.
“I have seen the contribution New Zealand makes to the partnership. Our partner countries know this and value what we do; and the periodic opinion pieces claiming otherwise are just incorrect,” he said.
“I should also note that New Zealand does not solely engage through the Five Eyes. The Christchurch Call, championed by the Prime Minister, is about stopping terrorist use of social media. After March 15 we received many offers of information and support from intelligence agencies around the world.”
While commentators speculate that New Zealand has sold its soul to China, there are signs the Government is pivoting away, as signalled by Mahuta when she urged exporters to diversify, fearing a “storm” of anger from China would make us vulnerable.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an historic free trade agreement with post-Brexit Britain last month, meaning export tax on nearly all New Zealand products to the UK will be wiped.
And next year, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will come into force, meaning New Zealand will have free trade relationships with 15 economies in the Indo-Pacific region, home to almost a third of the world’s population.
New Zealand’s relationship with China has hit several rocky patches, not least of all when Little in July announced that “Chinese state-sponsored actors” were behind “malicious cyber activity” detected by spy agencies.
The Chinese Embassy in Wellington described the accusations as “groundless and irresponsible”.
In his speech, Little said New Zealand was not immune from “the threat of malign state activity”, though during a Q&A, he was reluctant to name China.
“There are state actors behind some of the threats and the risks that we deal with. There’s a number of them and some will be known because they routinely appear in commentary in this particular area,” he said.
“I’m always reluctant to name it because people say, ‘the minister named that particular country’, but there are countries that have adopted an aggressive, outward-facing security posture.
“I’m not going to name specifics. When we have a good basis to do so, we do call out what we might describe as rogue state activity, and it’s not confined to a single country. There are a number of counties who can do it.
“State-backed interference and state-backed national security risk activity is a reality in the world today and New Zealand is not immune from it.”