In Depth

How China is fuelling tensions between Australia and New Zealand

Five Eyes allies at odds over Wellington’s decision to ditch aggressive stance to Beijing

Beijing is stoking growing tensions within the “Five Eyes” multilateral intelligence alliance that stem from New Zealand’s decision to go it alone in its policy towards China, analysts have warned.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is asserting New Zealand’s “sovereignty” in defiance of its foreign allies - comprising Australia, Canada, the UK and the US - by signalling that she is “not prepared to take her country into the kind of trade war with China that Australia has found itself facing”, The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour reports.

In doing so, Wellington has driven a wedge between the Five Eyes members - a result that is being trumpeted by a “triumphant” Chinese state media, The Times says.

Uneasy alliance

A simmering row between Australia and New Zealand bubbled over last week after Ardern’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, told a press conference that her country needs to “maintain and respect” China’s “particular customs, traditions and values”.

The intervention came amid ongoing tension between Canberra and Beijing over the sovereignty of Taiwan, with Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton telling ABC’s Insiders on Sunday that he did not think conflict with China “should be discounted”. 

“China has been very clear about the reunification and that’s been a long-held objective of theirs. They have been very clear about that goal,” Dutton added. “There is militarisation of bases across the region. Obviously, there is a significant amount of activity and there is an animosity between Taiwan and China.”

Dutton appears to have been throwing his weight behind what The Times describes as an “unusually forthright message” from Australia’s Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo to 15,000 staff for Anzac Day – Australia and New Zealand’s military remembrance day.

Pezzulo wrote that the “drums of war” were beating and that Australia should be prepared “to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight”.

“In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat - sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer”, he added.

In marked contrast to the language used by Australia’s top politicians, Mahuta responded with “the striking assertion that her country would resist efforts by its allies, including Australia, to expand the role of Five Eyes in responding to China”, writes national security expert William Stoltz in The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH).

Her statement marks “the latest in a steady drifting of New Zealand away from the hardening posture towards China adopted by other Western states”, adds Stoltz, who points to Australia’s decision to tear up agreements over China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Victoria, and the UK’s declaration that China is carrying out a genocide against its minority Uighur population.

And the shift in New Zealand’s posture has not been missed by officials in Beijing, who now see an opportunity to “fracture an alliance in which New Zealand is now viewed as the weak link”, The Times says.

Pry and needle

China’s state-owned Global Times reports that “Chinese experts” say the decision by the Australian government to use what is viewed by Beijing as an “anti-China law” to revoke agreements signed with Victoria state on the Belt and Road Initiative is a “major shot in what could lead up to a potential trade conflict”.

The move by Australia stands in sharp contrast to New Zealand’s decision to pursue “a stronger economic recovery and growth path” by taking “an independent approach”, adds the newspaper.

China slapped tariffs ranging from 116% to 218% on Australian winemakers last month in response to the increased hostilities, leading to suggestions that “concerns about the danger of war” are “outweighing fears of a trade crisis” in Canberra, The Times says.

“Fears are growing that China is building a force capable of retaking Taiwan”, the paper adds, with experts suggesting that Australia would follow the US into any conflict triggered by Washington’s security pact with Taipei.

New Zealand, however, has shown that it is the “weak link in the intelligence chain” in choosing to split from Five Eyes in its policy towards China, writes The Guardian’s Wintour. 

China is New Zealand’s biggest trading partner, with 29% of its export revenue dependent on Beijing’s continuing cooperation. But having “seen how Australia’s willingness to challenge China has led to severe trade repercussions”, Wellington has picked a different approach, says Wintour.

“China is a lonely power, with few if any real friends in the world,” writes Stoltz in the SMH. But as the smallest member, “New Zealand was always the natural target for China’s coercive efforts to divide and degrade the Five Eyes partnership”.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, told The Times that “Five Eyes can’t work without complete trust between the partners”.

Growing speculation that New Zealand might be excluded from the alliance will “cause concern among its spy agencies”, with a 2017 intelligence review revealing that “for every report New Zealand submits to Five Eyes it receives 99 in return”, the paper adds. In other words, whatever Ardern decides to do about China, “there will be a cost”.

And its about-turn will also “disappoint a breed of Brexiter”, The Guardian’s Wintour adds, with many seeing “the Anglosphere and Five Eyes as the future beating heart of a diplomatic intelligence alliance against China”.

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