Wellington has made it clear to Five Eyes partners, the US, UK, Australia and Canada, that it won’t be coerced into unnecessary confrontation with China. This is a sensible move for a country heavily reliant on trade with Beijing.
New Zealand has put the cat among the pigeons. On Monday, its Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta stated that Wellington is “uncomfortable” with the expansion of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance. Mahuta added that the pact, which also consists of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, was not “the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues” but most particularly on China, where she attempted to set out a more independent approach.
And although Mahuta subsequently qualified her comments, by saying New Zealand will “continue to actively engage with the Five Eyes alliance as we always have,” the inference was clear. Wellington reserves the right to speak for itself on China as and when it sees fit.
The Five Eyes members have increasingly been following Washington’s lead in taking a more confrontational stance against Beijing, with Australia being particularly aggressive. New Zealand, however, has long been the odd one out. Having upgraded its free trade deal with China at the beginning of the year, Wellington has avoided getting caught in Beijing’s crosshairs.
It was noticeably absent from a coordinated set of sanctions on Xinjiang a month ago, and has refused to sign up to joint statements condemning China on issues such as Hong Kong or Covid-19.
Observers have cited the country’s extremely favourable trade balance with China as a reason, with Wellington wielding a near $7 billion surplus in its exports towards Beijing. This mindset has been reinforced by a series of sanctions lobbed towards Australia by China for endorsing anti-Beijing policies. New Zealand, of course, is a smaller country. With just under five million people, it is the least populated Anglosphere nation and so the stakes of confrontation are so much higher.
Given all this, why does Wellington’s position matter so much? The answer is geography: this is a Five Eyes nation that sits close to the region which has been earmarked by the West as the strategic frontier of the world’s future, the so-called Indo-Pacific which the US is seemingly determined to stop China dominating.
This consideration has produced hysteria in Canberra, but not Auckland, which appears to be more content to politely hedge its bets and clearly question if aligning itself ever closer to the US, and upsetting China, is the way to go. Why try and spite a country which is making you prosperous?
The Five Eyes alliance is the spine of the US-led world order. Forged in the mantle of Anglophone exceptionalism, the intelligence pact was formed by the five countries in World War II, and hailed by Winston Churchill as the “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples.” In his view, it was a successor to the legacy of the British Empire itself.
These five countries work to sustain the existing world order through pooling intelligence with each other and intercepting communications worldwide, using collaboration in order to bypass their own privacy laws and spy on their own citizens too. It’s no surprise that these nations, with the exception of New Zealand, have become the figureheads of the anti-China cause, provoking condemnation from Beijing.
While trade, size and geography are all part of the reason New Zealand is the odd one out, history matters too. One could argue that it simply isn’t as ‘exceptionalist’, or for that matter ‘zealous’, as Australia, Canada, Britain and the US, because it was a colony which was not premised on the total destruction, dismissal and displacement of its indigenous population.
Instead, the creation of the colony was a compromise of sorts – albeit an unfair one – between the British and the Maori people, who were far too hardy to be defeated.
While this did not create an equal or just society, the resilience of the Maori, as well as the survival and revival of their language and their influence on national culture and symbolism, means that New Zealand is arguably more ‘indigenous’ than the other Five Eyes nations. It has a stronger ‘post-colonial’ worldview, as opposed to the hefty self-righteousness and unrepentant outlook harboured by Australia, Britain, Canada and the US.