New Zealand has criticised as “ill-informed” suggestions its part in the Five Eyes alliance is at risk amid fears over Beijing’s influence.
Earlier this week, New Zealand said it was “uncomfortable” with letting the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with Australia, Canada, US and Britain dictate its dealings with China.
Insiders said the Government would not be corralled into sabotaging its relationship with China, its main trading partner, and would not outsource its foreign policy as rhetoric over China became increasingly bellicose.
New Zealand has been reluctant to sign joint statements from Five Eyes partners criticising China over its crackdown in Hong Kong and the arrests of activists there. But it played down suggestions the intelligence-sharing group had fundamental differences over China.
Phil Goff, New Zealand’s former foreign affairs minister, said the Five Eyes group had survived serious disagreements before with no impact on the fundamental cohesion of the alliance.
“No one can ever accuse New Zealand of not playing its part in the fight for international security, peace and freedom,” Goff said.
He said during his decades in politics, New Zealand had valued both the Five Eyes relationships and its independent foreign policy, believing the two could coexist.
“Even in the years when there was a strong reaction from the US to our nuclear-free position, and even though a whole series of sanctions were taken against New Zealand for daring to have an independent policy, the intelligence relationship survived and continued pretty much as normal,” he said.
Neale Jones, the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, told The Daily Telegraph New Zealand had recently issued joint statements with Australia raising concerns about China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“New Zealand is still criticising China,” he said.
However, he said successive regimes had guarded New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and would not “outsource” that to Five Eyes.
“The Government is not naive about China’s increasingly aggressive stance on the world stage,” he said.
Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s foreign minister, praised aspects of the bilateral relationship with China at a meeting of the New Zealand-China council, but said: “We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our long-standing and formal commitment to universal human rights.”
New Zealand signed a free-trade agreement with China in 2008 and 29 per cent of its exports go to China.
British intelligence and security agencies have said they are unconcerned about suggestions New Zealand is adopting a softer line on malign Chinese activity.
Last year, the Five Eyes alliance took the decision to expand its remit beyond its core role of collecting and sharing intelligence, now also seeking to promote “shared values” on democracy and human rights.
Officials in New Zealand have not previously addressed the issue but Mahuta said Wellington wanted to chart its own course in dealings with China.
She said: “New Zealand has been very clear… not to invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues.”
Critics of Ardern’s position on China say she risks isolating her country from allies like Australia, whose own trading relationship with Beijing has suffered because of its criticism of China’s attempts to cover up the origins of the coronavirus, as well as its assault on Hong Kong.
A UK security official said the Five Eyes alliance was sufficiently comfortable to be able to disagree publicly on some matters without it affecting the group’s fundamental strength.
“This is a storm in a teacup,” he said.
In recent years China has adopted an increasingly aggressive foreign policy, particularly over sovereignty in the South China Sea, straining relationships with Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others.