New Zealand 'uncomfortable' with expanding the scope of Five Eyes alliance

In a major accommodation to Chinese concerns, New Zealand's foreign minister says she is keen to see the Five Eyes network stay focused on intelligence sharing alone.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta talks with a reporter in her Wellington office in November 2020.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta talks with a reporter in her Wellington office in November 2020. Source: AP via AAP

In a significant shift, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta says the country will resist future moves to join with partners Australia and USA to antagonise China using the Five Eyes intelligence framework.

The Five Eyes alliance is a network of five like-minded countries - the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - that share security-related intelligence.

Recently, members have invoked the alliance on broader matters, such as Hong Kong's creep towards authoritarianism or the mistreatment of Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region.

This has infuriated Chinese officials, who see the group as attempting to curtail China's sovereignty.

Last year, Chinese Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded with anger to a statement about Hong Kong, saying "if they dare to harm China's sovereignty, security and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded".

In a major accommodation to Chinese concerns, Ms Mahuta said she was keen to see the intelligence network stay focused on intelligence sharing alone.

"We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes," she said.

"We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests."

Ms Mahuta said the move was a departure from the approach of her predecessor, veteran Winston Peters.

Mr Peters was foreign minister during Jacinda Ardern's first term, when Labour relied upon his populist New Zealand First party to govern.

Free of that coalition, Ms Mahuta and Labour has changed its approach.

"New Zealand has been very clear, certainly in this term since we've held the portfolio, not to invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues," she said.

"They really exist outside of the remit of the Five Eyes. We don't favour that type of approach and have expressed that to Five Eyes partners."

Ms Mahuta made the comments at a meeting of the NZ China Council on Monday, just the second major policy address of her tenure, and days out from a meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in Wellington.

The move confirms New Zealand's independent streak on foreign policy.

In recent decades, Aotearoa has walked a different path to Australia, with fewer formal ties to the United States and a more comfortable working relationship with China.

While the Five Eyes pledge on Monday was an accommodation to its biggest trading partner, some of Ms Mahuta's other comments were less amenable.

She said New Zealand was seeking to lessen its trade reliance on any one country, which can only be interpreted as diversifying beyond China - it's biggest trade partner.

The 50-year-old also expressed concerns around indebtedness in the Pacific, where some nations have agreed to loans from China in order to build much-needed infrastructure.

"It's no secret there's a significant level of economic vulnerability across the Pacific," she said.

"New Zealand certainty invests in the Pacific ... by way of grants, not loans.

"If we're really focused on regional stability and opportunity we need to tackle this particular challenge. I hope that conversation can take place with those who seek to invest in the region."

Published 19 April 2021 at 2:54pm, updated 19 April 2021 at 3:34pm
Source: AAP - SBS