Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne arrived in Wellington on Wednesday night, followed by curses and threats from Beijing after she ended Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement with China.
Her host, her New Zealand counterpart, Nanaia Mahuta, on the other hand, was at the same time receiving warm praise from China for her announcement that New Zealand would not participate in joint political statements put out by Five Eyes members.
The gulf between the two countries over relations with China seemed as wide as it has ever been.
No amount of gushing from Mahuta and Payne about the spirit of ANZAC or the “Love Actually” reunions with the opening of the travel bubble could obscure the fact that New Zealand looks like it is back where it was in the 1980s; on the outer with Australia over its foreign policy.
A measure of how tense things appear to have become came with the appearance of the heads of the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation ASIO) and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service participating in the bilateral talks.
This is not unprecedented, but foreign policy sources told POLITIK it is also not a regular occurrence.
The two intelligence chiefs were surely there to discuss where New Zealand’s relationship with Five Eyes goes now.
The trouble started last Tuesday when Foreign Minister, in her second major speech since becoming Minister, spoke to the China Council meeting in Wellington.
She did not actually mention Five Eyes in her speech to the Council.
That speech had been carefully written; It is known that that it was widely referred around the bureaucracy before it was delivered and thus it could be considered a formal statement of New Zealand’s foreign policy position with China.
Instead, Mahuta introduced the Five Eyes issue in her own ad-libbed comments at a standup with journalists after the speech.
It is maybe that it was not in the formal speech which seems to have caused some diplomatic confusion with claims that the Five Eyes partners were not formally forewarned though Mahuta said her views had been expressed to Five Eyes partners.
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise though.
POLITIK understands that National foreign Ministers Murray McCully and Gerry Brownlee resisted attempts by Five Eyes to expand their remit in their public statements and already this year, New Zealand has joined Australia in two bilateral statements on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Winston Peters may have been more accommodating though and had been willing to sign up to Five Eyes statements..
That would suggest that what Mahuta was doing was simply re-iterating and restoring what had been a long-held New Zealand convention.
Her comments certainly didn’t appear to be a casual slip of the tongue. That would be unlikely with her anyway; she is a careful and precise speaker when she deals with journalists.
She deliberately referred to Five Eyes in answers to three separate questions in the standup.
Her key statement was: “Let me be really clear. New Zealand has been very clear, certainly in this term and since we’ve held the portfolio, not to invoke Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues that really exist outside of the remit of the Five Eyes.”
Five Eyes has been coming under pressure from post-Brexit Britain to provide a platform for that country’s ambition to re-establish itself as a global power.
Britain’s recent White Paper, “Global Britain in a competitive age The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” says: “We have increased our Five Eyes cooperation, including in response to the pandemic, and will seek to strengthen policy cooperation further on a range of issues.”
That British ambition may explain why some of the commentaries from Britain have been near hysterical because they realise the White Paper is what Mahuta is rejecting.
Instead, she defined New Zealand’s attitude to Five Eyes in her joint press conference with Marise Payne yesterday.
“What I conveyed to journalists after the New Zealand China speech was that the Five Eyes arrangement is about the security and intelligence framework,” she said.
“But it’s not necessary all the time on every issue to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues in the human rights space, for example.”
“We do value the Five Eyes relationship; we receive significant benefits from being a part of that relationship with our close allies and friends in term of common values and principles.
“But whether or not that framework needs to be invoked every time on every issue, especially in the human rights space, is something that we have expressed further views about.”
Payne’s comments at the joint press conference with Mahuta yesterday seemed to meet the New Zealand Minister halfway.
She described Five Eyes as a vital strategic alliance “that is key particularly to our security and our intelligence interests and has been for many years.”
And she went on to say:” But through what is clearly an era of greater strategic competition, particularly in the Indo Pacific; my view, is that countries will choose to address issues of concern in whichever forum they themselves determine, appropriate and consistent with their respective national interest.”
The problem Mahuta — and New Zealand — face with Australia is not Five Eyes; it is China.
Australia is in a security relationship with the United States; New Zealand is not; it repeatedly says it has an “independent” foreign policy.
Australia has a different different strategic view of the world whereas New Zealand has been more willing to accommodate China.
Australia has been much more aggressive. Marise Payne vividly displayed that aggression on the eve of her visit to Wellington when she ended the signing up to China’s Belt and Road project by the state of Victoria.
New Zealand’s position on Belt and Road is more ambiguous. Mahuta said yesterday that New Zealand China had signed a non-binding agreement on Belt and Road in 2017.
“We’ve not yet concluded the work programme, and we are still considering our approach,” she said.
Payne not only rejects Belt and Road but has a much more critical view of China overall.
“We also have to acknowledge that China’s outlook, the nature of China’s external engagement, both in our region and beyond and an enduring partnership requires us to adapt to those new realities, to talk with each other,” she said yesterday.
“And we have offered clarity and consistency and confidence.”
Contrast that with Mahuta on Tuesday talking about the perspective that she brought to the relationship with China.
“The perspective I bring to New Zealand’s relationship with China – an intention that New Zealand is respectful, predictable and consistent in the way we seek to engage in the pursuit of our own long-standing and deeply held values and interests,” she said.
This is reflected in her statement on Tuesday ojn the South China Sea.
She said New Zealand’s was increasingly concerned about the escalation of (military) presence there, “and we do urge those in the area to try and find through dialogue and diplomacy a solution because any move that is perceived as an aggressive one creates disharmony.”
Australia, on the other hand, has said its naval vessels and aircraft will continue to exercise rights “under international law to freedom of navigation and overflight, including in the South China Sea, and we support others doing the same.”
These sorts of differences differences were talked about yesterday in what Payne said were “discussions today at length on a whole range of strategic issues.”
They will undoubtedly continue — possibly more pointedly — when Prime Minister ZArdern hosdtsd Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Queenstown within the next few weeks.