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Perfidious Aotearoa? New Zealand’s Five Eyes Problem

30 Apr 2021
By Dr Bryce Wakefield
Conceptualisation of the Five Eyes. Source: metamorworks/Shutterstock.

New Zealand sees Five Eyes as a practical intelligence-sharing agreement not a foreign policy coordination mechanism. This stems less from a fear of economic retaliation from Beijing than from its national identity and conceptualisation of its regional interests.

New Zealand is in the doghouse. If sections of the Twitterati and Australian media are to be believed, it is no longer a trusted ally. It doesn’t join its “Five Eyes alliance” partners to make statements critical of China. It has succumbed to China’s economic might. It has gone soft on Beijing.

True, New Zealand’s reluctance to criticise China vocally is partly down to a hard-headed calculation of economic interest. New Zealand, separated from the rest of the world by a natural moat of about 2,000 kilometres, tends to prioritise questions of economic security over national defence.

And unlike Australia, New Zealand exports few products that China could not source elsewhere. It’s no wonder, then, that Wellington treads a cautious line in its dealings with its largest export market. The Five Eyes grouping is not somehow offering to secure the New Zealand economy should Wellington incur the wrath of Beijing.

But this is not the whole story. Wellington still issues independent statements that are critical of China. Its positions on foreign policy issues are mostly in line with its Five Eyes partners. It is certainly not a “backstabbing government” that is guilty of “sucking up to the Chinese dictatorship,” as some of Australia’s frothier “after-dark” commentators would have it. Politicians in New Zealand are generally dismissive of such commentary.

They will take measured expressions of concern more seriously, however. In a recent speech, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta noted that New Zealand would continue to speak out on its many differences with China. However, in answer to a follow-up question, she noted that New Zealand did not “invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues that really exist out of the remit of the Five Eyes.” While Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne seemed unfazed by the New Zealand position, Australian officials are reportedly concerned that New Zealand is going off-kilter.

Nevertheless, Australia’s foreign policy establishment should not be surprised when New Zealand refuses to view Five Eyes through a broad policy lens. This is because New Zealand’s position on Five Eyes is not the product of a party or an individual who can be bought or persuaded to “stay on message.” It is bound to notions of New Zealand’s permanent interests in its near abroad, mixed with questions of the nation’s identity. That identity, reinforced by the actions of Australia and the United States, has cemented the notion in Wellington that Five Eyes is a purely pragmatic arrangement.

New Zealand has always positioned itself as a leader in and, more recently, of the South Pacific. Wellington’s decision to adopt an anti-nuclear policy in the mid-1980s, which saw it expelled from the ANZUS alliance by the United States, was motivated by a reawakening of indigenous identity and a sense of solidarity with Pacific Island neighbours, where nuclear weapons testing had devastated local communities. But New Zealand’s policy was not necessarily “anti-American.” While some New Zealanders choose to remember the period as a time when their country stood up to a superpower, polls and government statements then showed that New Zealand did not want to leave the alliance. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

After the split, New Zealand actively looked for areas of common ground to demonstrate that it was committed to contributing to the security of its partners. One of those areas was intelligence collection. Even though Washington had frozen military contact with New Zealand and diplomatic contact was tense, New Zealand was allowed to remain a member of Five Eyes, albeit with curtailed access to information.

This was in no small part thanks to the good offices of Australia, which continued to share information under the supposition that an informed New Zealand was better than a misinformed one. But there was also a certain sense of pragmatism. The UKUSA agreement, or Five Eyes, still then an official secret, had carved the world up into various domains where the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand each were tasked with monitoring a different geographical area. New Zealand had special purchase on the South Pacific.

New Zealand sought to maximise its utility to the Five Eyes intelligence community in the years after the ANZUS split. Senior leaders who were central to the development of the New Zealand anti-nuclear policy reinforced New Zealand’s intelligence-gathering capability. Shortly after the split, Prime Minister David Lange authorised the construction of a signals interception base at Waihopai in the South Island, although he later claimed that he did not know it was used for international operations. As prime minister, Helen Clark, who was central to the anti-nuclear policy, was highly critical of protesters who destroyed property on the base.

The developments around Five Eyes played out in an era of economic and cultural realignment in New Zealand, a reforging of the nation’s identity. As a result, New Zealand’s anti-nuclear position—or rather the sense of not being seen to walk in lockstep with albeit likeminded nations—has become integral to its thinking on its place in the world. When New Zealand politicians talk of their country’s “independent foreign policy,” they are not mouthing platitudes but deeply ingrained beliefs.

Meanwhile, the lesson New Zealand learned about Five Eyes is that it is not an “alliance,” per se, or even an element of an alliance. Nor is it bound up with “values.” For New Zealand, Five Eyes is a pragmatic intelligence sharing arrangement. Nothing more, nothing less. From Wellington’s perspective, New Zealand was kicked out of its alliance with the United States over a question of values, and yet Five Eyes remained. To make this the basis of joint foreign policy statements seems absurd.

The New Zealand government undoubtably thinks the less said about Five Eyes the better. Occasionally, leaks reveal the extent to which New Zealand is spying on the countries in the region it seeks to lead. Much (though not all) the information New Zealand gathers on the Pacific is open source, that is, freely available to the public anyway. However, blatant reminders of New Zealand’s Pacific role in an international spy network understandably tend to irritate regional leaders. This is problematic for New Zealand, which tries its best to argue that it lives up to the values of its independent, even-handed foreign policy in the region.

In fact, New Zealand probably sees Five Eyes joint statements on China as ineffectual or even largely counterproductive. They certainly won’t change Chinese behaviour, and continuously making moral statements about global affairs from within an exclusive Anglo-American club that has “spying on other countries” baked into its very name also would not play well in the Pacific, a region where often only the harder edges of colonisation are remembered.

The irritation felt by those in the Pacific about New Zealand’s intelligence role feeds back into New Zealand’s domestic discourse in ways that it does not in other Five Eyes nations. This is because relatives of those in the region are integrated into the power structures of its society: almost half of the nation’s Cabinet have Maori and Pacific Island heritage, for example. The Waihopai base is still the target of local protesters who would prefer that New Zealand walks the walk of an independent foreign policy completely, that is, without supporting the US intelligence establishment. Governments have sought to explain the benefits inclusion in Five Eyes brings to New Zealanders but are limited by what they can say. Despite their support for the pact, Five Eyes remains a domestic political irritant.

It’s no wonder, then, that a New Zealand foreign minister would be circumspect about turning the Five Eyes arrangement into a platform for broad foreign policy coordination. New Zealand’s position on China does deserve to be examined and debated. The good news, though, is that New Zealand’s reluctance to go “all in” on a new model of engagement for Five Eyes probably has less to do with angering Beijing and more to do with how New Zealand seeks to play a role in its narrower region.

Dr Bryce Wakefield is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.