An expert says the Foreign Minister’s comments about New Zealand wanting to take an increasingly independent stance on foreign policy, particularly on China, wasn’t a “problem”. But, her comments about being “uncomfortable” with expanding the Five Eyes alliance’s remit was “where things got a bit difficult”.
Nanaia Mahuta raised a few eyebrows while speaking to reporters on Monday when she said New Zealand did not want to use the alliance with Australia, Canada, the UK and the US as a first point of contact when sending messages about China.
“We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes,” she said at the time.
“We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests.”
Robert Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at Victoria University, told Breakfast it was awkward that the Prime Minister had to later clarify Nanaia Mahuta’s comments about the Five Eyes.
Ayson said Jacinda Ardern had to emphasise that New Zealand was still committed to the intelligence alliance, and that it had only raised the point that it did not want to use it as a platform for the purposes of criticising China.
Mahuta had seen this as widening the scope of the group, and said if New Zealand had wanted to raise an issue with Beijing, it would do so directly.
Her comments came after a major speech to the New Zealand China Council when she said New Zealand needed to diversify its trading relations in light of its reliance on China.
The position appeared to be a in reaction to Beijing’s concerns. In November, China issued a warning to "beware of their eyes being poked and blinded" after New Zealand - along with its Five Eyes partners - issued a statement reiterating "serious concern regarding China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong".
Ayson said Mahuta’s explicit comments about New Zealand's Five Eyes partners weren’t needed because it ended up raising more questions than answers.
But, New Zealand’s stance made sense as a foreign policy position, he added.
“Sometimes, New Zealand uses its own language. Sometimes, we say things with Australia … there’s a sense there’s already that independent tradition.
“In a sense, the Foreign Minister did not actually need to make that explicit point about Five eyes. It was already there.
“She in a sense created some drama,” Ayson said. For example, the comments ended up being praised by Chinese state-owned media.
Appearing on Breakfast after Ayson, Mahuta said she wanted to clarify the context in which she made the comments.
“In context, what I indicated was that our closest allies are members of the Five Eyes alliance. That’s a security intelligence framework.”
Thus, it was “not necessary” every time to invoke them when there was a foreign policy position New Zealand wanted to take, she said.
“Diplomacy favours dialogue, so it’s really important as we stand up for our values and what are in our interest, we look for friends beyond the Five Eyes.”
With China’s escalating presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Mahuta said New Zealand needed to determine how it would go about its “mature” relationship with China.
This was especially important given China is New Zealand’s top trading partner, she added.
“We will stand for what we believe is in the long-term interest of New Zealand. We’ll stand for our values, what an open democracy looks like, upholding universal human rights, and we’ll look for other partners across the world.”
Last month, New Zealand teamed up with Australia to express "grave concerns" over "credible" reports of severe human rights abuses in the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.
Also last month, the countries paired up again in a joint statement condemning the Chinese Communist Party's changes to Hong Kong's electoral system .
National leader Judith Collins said the Government was “between a hard and a rock place”.
“On the one hand, we’ve got China who is our major economic export market, certainly crucial in keeping our economy going. On the other hand we have our major security arrangements.”
Collins said global relations were slowly turning into a battle between China and the Anglo-American sphere.
“We [New Zealand] become the meat, the poor little thing in the middle.”
She said Mahuta was right in saying New Zealand needed to diversify who it did trade with.
But, given that China had opened itself up to a free trade agreement with New Zealand, she questioned the lack of similar offers from Five Eyes partners like the UK and US.