NZ Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, walking the line with Five Eyes

New Zealand faces a major foreign policy challenge as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement starts to become more of a security agreement.

Australia appears to be leading the move to have Five Eyes be about more than intelligence.

China believes the changes are targeted against it.

The agreement dates back to the end of the Second Wolrd War and provides for intelligence sharing between the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Australian Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, is leading a proposal to have the Five Eyes nations co-ordinate a strategic economic response to the Covid-19 crisis.

On Sunday he confirmed that he had spoken to the various finance ministers and secretaries of the five-member countries about his proposal.

NZ Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, said two weeks ago that he had accepted an invitation from the Australian Treasurer to participate in a call on economics responses to Covid-19.

But SkyNews yesterday quoted Frydenberg as saying the Five Eyes economic leaders are to meet regularly.

He said the meetings would be an opportunity to swap notes about the various domestic economic initiatives each country was taking in response to the crisis.

Australia has been talking about expanding the scope of Five Eyes since the middle of last year, but in doing so, it has linked Five Eyes to the ANZUS partnership.


In 1985 the United States suspended its security guarantee to New Zealand which was a key part of the Treaty because of New Zealand’s nuclear ship ban which we have never rescinded and thus have remained outside ANZUS ever since.

In the process, New Zealand has developed what the former Prime Minister, Bill English, called “a truly independent” foreign policy.

That includes a strategic partnership with China.

And though New Zealand defence forces, naval vessels and aircraft once again exercise with the United States, those exercises are generally multi-lateral exercises.

However Australian Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, sees Five Eyes as a bridge to ANZUS.

Speaking last year to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), she said Australia’s relationship with the United States mattered a great deal.

“Today this relationship is not just about our mutual support obligations, enshrined in the ANZUS Treaty,” she said.

“Rather, it is about ensuring the alliance is more focused on, and responsive to, shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

“As I discussed with key allies at the Shangri-La Dialogue, it is now about co-ordinating the implementation of our respective Indo-Pacific strategies.

“And it is about determining where we can have a better combined effect, particularly with our five eyes partners, where we need to develop complementarities, and where we must build self-reliance.

“These will be important messages both I and the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be reinforcing not long from now at the next Australia‑United States Ministerial Consultations.

“They will help guide how we focus lines of interoperability and where we direct effort to ensure that the alliance’s whole remains greater than the sum of its parts – in terms of the intelligence that guides us, the capability we operate, and the technology that advantages us.”

The executive director of ASPI, Peter Jennings, told “The Australian” that Five Eyes was gaining stronger relevance amid the strategic tensions that had emerged during the pandemic but that the economic crisis was now a paramount security issue.

He said Five Eyes had been pointing in this direction.

 “Now, there is an understanding that we have to address the ­security implications of the ­economic relationships in a way we haven’t had to since World War II.

“I think, increasingly, that what Five Eyes will do … it will have to evolve into those areas to create a shared approach on how democracies deal with those things.

“I think the other point of Five Eyes is that it does bring like-minded democracies together against an authoritarian challenge. Principally, when it was set up after World War II, it was dealing with the Soviets (but) most conversations within Five Eyes now are about China,” he said.

It is the potential for China to see this Five Eyes move as a hostile one aimed at them that poses challenges for New Zealand.

New Zealand last week delicately side-stepped being seen to join a Five Eyes anti-China statement opposing China’s imposition of a National Security Law on Hong Kong and instead issued its own.

The two statements were similar but not the same; the New Zealand one repeated some but not all of the language of the Five Eyes statement.

It refrained from directly criticising China and omitted a  line from the Five Eyes statement which said that “allowing the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the rights and freedoms they were promised can be the only way back from the tensions and unrest that the territory has seen over the last year.”

Rather than saying that was the only way, the New Zealand statement left  a door open for China to implement a National Security Law by saying: “It is important that any national security law respects these fundamental freedoms and has the support of the people of Hong Kong.”

 The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, excluded New Zealand from his condemnation of the Five Eyes statement.

“The unwarranted comments and accusations made by the relevant countries constitute a flagrant interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” he said.

“China deplores and firmly opposes that and has made stern representations with the relevant countries.”

In what looks like retaliation, China has now warned students not to study in Australia because of racism there against Chinese, including physical attacks.

That is a price New Zealand is unlikely to be willing to pay.

There are other challenges.

The so-called “Quad” nations of India, the United States, Japan and Australia, has now included New Zealand, Viet Nam and South Korea in discussions on the Covid-19 crisis.

In a study published last month, Sydney’s Lowy Institute said that over the past two years, there has been increasing agreement among the four Quad states that as China continues to rise, the rules and norms of the US-led order in Asia are steadily being eroded, and that action is needed to strengthen and defend it. 

But in a statement (ironically the same day as the Lowy study) the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said what it described as “ this ad hoc group” had enabled New Zealand and the other participants to share ideas and best practices for responding to the unique and complex challenges presented by the global pandemic, and to plan for safely re-opening our economies, “while upholding fundamental Indo-Pacific principles of openness, transparency, respect for sovereignty and adherence to international law.”

The statement said the talks and provided the opportunity to draw attention to the particular impacts of the crisis on our Pacific neighbours and to encourage support for Pacific countries.

“Discussions have reinforced the importance of regional institutions, including APEC and ASEAN-led architecture such as the East Asia Summit, in facilitating cooperation and best practice in the region, given the importance of ASEAN centrality to those regional processes,” it said.

However, The Times of India, noting New Zealand’s participation in the talks said “on a larger canvas the effort is also an attempt to keep the Quad Plus countries within a certain sphere of influence and strategic direction.

“It is, therefore, significant to have New Zealand as one of the participants, given it is one of the Five Eyes countries,” it said.

Robertson is caught in a dilemma over the economic meeting.

Plainly it is New Zealand’s interests to be involved in a meeting with four G20 economies, including our second-biggest trading partner  — but our biggest trading partner, China, will most definitely not be there.

This will require some fancy footwork from Robertson.