Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speaking at the China Council yesterday

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s speech to the New Zealand China Council yesterday was arguably one of the most important made by a foreign minister in recent years, possibly since the 1980s.

For a start, she made it to the China Council, a body committed to good and amicable relations between New Zealand and China.

Seated around their table in Wellington yesterday were a range of business people and academics who have regular contacts with China. Among them, Air NZ CEO Greg Foran was there, as was WETA Digital CEO, Sir Richard Taylor and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade  (MFAT) Secretary, Chris Seed.

The speech was subtly and carefully worded. But ultimately, with its declaration that we would no longer participate in the Five Eyes alliance’s broader political and security campaigns, it may prove to be as important as the 1984 – 87 Labour Government’s anti-nuclear speeches which led to New Zealand being expelled from ANZUS.

It certainly clarified, more clearly than ever before, what New Zealand means by an independent foreign policy.

China watcher and lobbyist Charles Finny tweeted that the speech had been “much worked upon in MFAT and the Beehive.”

It was a clear affirmation of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy and marked a change in emphasis from Mahuta’s predecessor, Winston Peters.

He questioned China’s Belt and Road, defended stronger language in a Defence Policy Review about the South China Sea and clashed with Chinese Ambassador Wu Xi when she reminded him of New Zealand’s One China policy after announcing New Zealand’s support for Taiwan to join a WHO meeting.  The accumulation of Peters’ pokes at China revealed in public what many knew to be true of his private views; he was a China sceptic much more at home with New Zealand’s traditional allies Britain, the United States and Australia.

Not only did the speech deal with New Zealand’s foreign policy as a geographic and economic proposition but also, in more detail than previously, Mahuta explained how her own belief in indigenous values and the relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi would be woven into foreign policy decision making.

“I believe our foreign policy settings can be enhanced by te Tiriti,” she said.

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“The principles of partnership, active participation and protection can be called upon to enable equity and tino rangatiratanga (self-determination).

“Increasingly, these principles continue to shape the type of democracy Aotearoa New Zealand is becoming; confident in our bicultural foundation, and determined to pursue our interests for those who call this land home and for those who share our values of openness, transparency, democracy and the rule of law.

“New Zealand’s experience means that we can advocate with certainty for the recognition and inclusion of all peoples – including indigenous people and ethnic minorities – for their participation, knowledge and economic contribution to society.

“We believe this can address issues of social exclusion, poverty and inequity worldwide and at home.”

How this template would impact relations with China when it is being accused of abusing the rights of the indigenous Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang is still not entirely obvious. But what was clear was that if New Zealand did have something to say to China, it would not say it as part of the Five Eyes group.

“Let me be really clear,” she said.

“New Zealand has been obvious, certainly in this term and since we’ve held the portfolio, not to invoke the 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.

“So we’ve not favoured that type of approach and have expressed it to five eyes partners.”

By “remit”, she presumably means Five Eyes’ role as an intelligence-sharing organisation. But the reality is that it has grown to embrace a wider range of activities, and more recently, it had begun to assume the character of security alliance, a sort of ANZUS Mark 2.

China has been particularly critical of its extension into security and other political areas.

“No matter how many ‘eyes’ you have, be careful not to be poked and get blind by harming China’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said last November.  

The references to “this term” and “since we’ve held the portfolio” are clear indications that this is a change in policy since NZ First Leader Winston Peters held the foreign affairs portfolio when he and NZ First Minister Ron Mark had no qualms about extending the Five Eyes mission.

That was evident last May when Mark, joined a Five Eyes Defence Ministers teleconference.

A communique issued after the conference said Ministers had committed to meet regularly as part of efforts to address existing and emerging security challenges “and to advance their shared values of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.”

In July, then-Foreign Minister Winston Peters joined a Five Eyes foreign ministers teleconference to discuss the political situation in Hong Kong.

And New Zealand joined other Five Eyes nations to issue a statement condemning China’s actions in Hong Kong over the legislative elections.

Now, said Mahuta, New Zealand would still speak out, but it would do so away from the structure of Five Eye4s.

“What we would prefer is looking for other supports in the region that may or may not be those (Five Eyes )countries,” she said.

“The point of it is the Five Eyes relationship has a specific purpose, and we would much rather prefer other partners on the issues that we want to message out and advocate in favour of as we express our concern, but also call for action.”

POLITIK Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary, Chris Seed and Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran at the China Council meeting yestrday

There is already evidence of this policy in action with New Zealand not joining a January Five Eyes Foreign Ministers’ statement protesting the arrests of Opposition politicians in Hong kong.

Instead, in March, Mahuta made two joint statements with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne about human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Mahuta’s move will be a controversial (albeit only partial) step away from the alliance of the English-speaking western nations who, along with New Zealand, comprise Five Eyes; Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.

An indication of the reaction she might receive came a fortnight ago in “The Australian”, which reported that New Zealand had refused to join a Five Eyes statement criticizing a World Health Organisation investigation into the origins of Covid in China.

The newspaper said: “While Australia’s relationship with China has imploded during the pandemic, New Zealand has become Beijing’s favourite members of the Five Eyes group. Wellington was rewarded in January with an upgrade in its free trade agreement with China.”

But Mahuta said New Zealand let its Five Eyes partners know what it intended to do.

“It’s a matter that we have raised with Five Eyes partners; that we are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes relationship; that we would much rather prefer looking for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues,” she said.

Asked if New Zealand come under any pressure from the Biden administration to take a tougher line with China, particularly over the South China Sea, she said New Zealand made its decisions based on its values and interests and long term interests for the region.

“And we have an independent foreign policy on the South China Sea,” she said.

“We’re increasingly concerned about the escalation of presence there, but 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.”

Mahuta acknowledged that China and New Zealand had very different values systems.

“We have very different political systems and ways of doing things, but the clearer that we are with China on what we value as a country and also for our region, again, this is the respectful, predictable, consistent approach that we will continue to advocate for as we ensure that our region is well served in terms of its long term resilience,” she said.

And she gave a clear hint that New Zealand was unimpressed with China’s “debt diplomacy” in “our region”, the South Pacific, which has seen countries like Tonga and Samoa run up huge debts on Chinese infrastructure loans.

It’s no secret that there are there’s a significant level of economic vulnerability across the Pacific,” she said.

“And the way in which New Zealand certainly invests in the Pacific through its aid program is by way of grants, not loans necessarily.

“And we really need to think about that.

“Covid has only compounded levels of economic vulnerability that existed prior to it.

“And if we are really focused on regional stability and opportunity, we need to tackle this particular challenge that the Pacific is confronting.

“And I hope that a different conversation can take place with those who seek to invest in the region.”

And though Mahuta may not be joining Five Eyes statements in the future, she committed herself to speak out, particularly on human rights issues.

“Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner,” she said.

“We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights.

“Sometimes we will therefore find it necessary to speak out publicly on issues like we have on developments in Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and cyber incidents. 

“At times, we will do this in association with others that share our views, and sometimes we will act alone.

“In each case, we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand’s interests.”