New Zealand has had to face more than usual geopolitical headwinds this year – and almost all of it has to do with its second-biggest trading partner, China.
Over the past couple of years, NZ’s longstanding western allies have increasingly voiced concern over what they perceive as China’s growing influence in the country.
The seven-decade-old ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and NZ is one grouping that clearly appears concerned. Earlier this year, a Canadian government report titled 'Rethinking Security: China and Age of Strategic Rivalry' referred to NZ as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the alliance saying, “New Zealand is valuable to China, as well as to other states such as Russia, as a soft underbelly through which to access Five Eyes intelligence.”
CIA analyst Peter Mattis, who spoke about the growing concern about NZ to the US Congress and when asked whether NZ’s presence in the Five Eyes group should be questioned, he said “Precisely.” He later told Radio NZ: “…there's sufficient information there to suggest there is an issue, or at the very least, a very real risk.”
Voices growing shriller
The latest such report titled Chinese Influence and American Interest came out just last week in which the Hoover Institution, a noted US think tank, presented NZ as a case study for countries where Chinese influence is perceived to be growing.
In what would be an embarrassing observation for NZ politicians it says, “NZ’s intelligence service still cannot investigate cases of subversion and foreign influence inside its political parties without the approval of the service’s minister, whose political calculations may inhibit action.”
This appears to refer to a National Party MP of Chinese origin who is alleged to have taught at a Chinese military intelligence school for several years and is alleged to have a close link with the Communist Party.
The report is said to draw substantially from NZ academic and China expert Dr Anne Marie Brady’s work on Chinese influence in NZ. It has been widely reported in the media that Dr Brady’s properties have been broken into and her car tampered with. The investigation is ongoing for months now but not much by way of progress has been revealed publicly. Observers have long suspected a connection between her work and the break-ins.
These events have led to speculation that NZ was under some sort of pressure from its western allies, particularly the Five Eyes, to prevent global Chinese telecom and data equipment firm Huawei from the bidding process for Spark’s forthcoming 5G network. A few weeks ago, Spark chief Simon Moutter had openly said he wanted the Government to state specifically what its security concerns were and that sourcing hardware from other providers would drive up the cost.
Not much by way of reaction has come from Spark after the Government’s decision last week, which in itself speaks volumes about what the concerns might be. Australia has long stopped Huawei from both, bidding for its own 5G network and its National Broadband Network (the equivalent of NZ’s national UFB network).
Coincidentally, the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) announcement came in the week that several high-level security officials from the US were on a mission in Wellington meeting GCSB Minister Andrew Little. There is no public information on whether the ban was discussed at the meeting. But the timing was enough for anyone to join the dots.
As the year winds down, it is quite clear who NZ has cast its lot with, though politicians are wont to say NZ would never brook being dictated by any country or grouping. There is little doubt that the ripples are being felt in China: according to reports Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s impending official trip to China, this year seems destined to remain impending for now.
NZ must hedge its global strategy
While NZ must walk on eggshells as regards its critical relationship with China, in the coming months it must take firm steps toward casting its net wider: It needs to consciously strengthen its longstanding ties with the Indian economic juggernaut.
It would be advantageous for NZ on several fronts: India is the fastest growing economy with an equally fast-growing middleclass, it has familiar democratic institutions and frameworks, has a highly skilled workforce that speaks English – and very importantly, is being wooed by the western world to counter perceived geopolitical imbalances of which NZ is increasingly seen as a victim.
The US, India and Australia have strengthened military and economic ties in recent years; the US has virtually renamed the Asia Pacific as ‘Indo Pacific’ and just last week at the G20, a new alliance ‘JAI’ – Japan-America-India – was announced by the three leaders.
There is much merit in NZ getting over its anachronistic fear of physical distances and bringing India closer to the heart of its emerging geopolitical strategy.
– Dev Nadkarni is the founding editor of The Indian Weekender