International law expert Al Gillespie expects New Zealand will be urged by Five Eyes to 'speak up' more as China beefs up threats

An international law expert expects New Zealand will be urged by its Five Eyes partners to "speak up" and "become more committed to the scrum" as China beefs up threats. 

China issued a chilling response on Friday to the United States, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand - members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance - after they jointly expressed concern over China's interference in Hong Kong. 

"The Chinese people will not provoke troubles, but we never flinch when trouble comes our way," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Friday. 

"No matter how many eyes they have, five or 10 or whatever, should anyone dare to undermine China's sovereignty, security and development interests, be careful not to get poked in the eye."

It came after the foreign spokesperson from each Five Eyes partner - including Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta - released a joint statement expressing concern over China's new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong. 

Four opposition members were expelled from Hong Kong's legislature last week after Beijing gave city authorities new powers to curb dissent. The move sparked mass resignations by Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition lawmakers. 

It raised alarm in the West about the level of Hong Kong's autonomy, promised under a 'one country, two systems' approach when Britain ended its colonial rule of the city and handed it back to China in 1997 under the UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration. 

"China's action is a clear breach of its international obligations under the legally binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration. It breaches both China's commitment that Hong Kong will enjoy a 'high degree of autonomy', and the right to freedom of speech," the Five Eyes statement read. 

The Five Eyes issued a similar statement in August when Winston Peters was Foreign Minister following the "unjust" barring 12 of opposition candidates from running in Hong Kong's elections. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. Photo credit: Getty

Waikato University Law Professor Al Gillespie says the Five Eyes statement was "fair" and not inflammatory. He thinks China's actions are not consistent with the promises China made over Hong Kong when it was handed back in 1997.

"NZ is part of the Five Eyes, and it is correct that we are part of this statement, and remain within the Five Eyes pack over this," he said. "The risk is that NZ gets one of its eyes picked out."

The China-New Zealand relationship is already being tested. In July, the Government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in light of China's decision to pass a controversial national security law for the city. 

It allows extradition to the Chinese mainland for trial, and crimes of separatist activity, state subversion, terrorist activity and collusion with foreign forces, can be punishable by up to life in prison. 

Waikato University Law Professor Al Gillespie.
Waikato University Law Professor Al Gillespie. Photo credit: File

China responded by suspending Hong Kong's extradition treaty with New Zealand. The Chinese Embassy urged New Zealand to "stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs" and do more to promote the good aspects of the relationship. 

"They've been a lot more aggressive in recent years on a bunch of stuff," National MP Simon Bridges told The AM Show on Friday. "I think it's really concerning for the world and I'm glad that the Government with our partners has stood up for our values."

Bridges said there is "no question" China is breaching international law. But he also pointed out that China is New Zealand's largest trading partner and a balance has to be struck. 

The New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement signed in 2008 opened us up to one of the world's fastest-growing economies with its vast population and growing middle class representing huge potential. Two-way trade represents more than $30 billion. 

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty

Gillespie says Australia has more to worry about than New Zealand. 

The Chinese Embassy in Canberra on Thursday issued a list of 14 complaints about Australia, including Hong Kong, its support for Taiwan entering the World Health Organization (WHO), and Chinese investments being blocked on national security grounds. 

It came after China imposed a series of trade reprisals on Australia after it led calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. 

"The Australian and Chinese relationship is much worse than ours," Gillespie said. "We are still subject to some of the same concerns, but nowhere near the same number, nor the same level of intensity."

Gillespie said the challenge for New Zealand will be "walking the middle line" between not offending our biggest trading partner and also not offending our traditional Five Eyes allies. 

"While China would like countries like NZ to be silent about such matters (or better still, be splintered from the Five Eyes), the Five Eyes partners will be expecting the exact opposite - and for us to speak up with greater regularity, and become more committed to the scrum."

Gillespie said it could get more complicated with Joe Biden leading the US. 

"Put your seat belt on. This is likely to become more complicated, not less, as Biden is likely to be tougher on China over such matters than Trump was."