British media claims Five Eyes has 'become four' after Nanaia Mahuta's comments on New Zealand's position

British media claim comments from New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister signal the Five Eyes has become a group of four with Aotearoa breaking away.

However, some have taken a broad view of Nanaia Mahuta's remarks, which suggested New Zealand wasn't comfortable with the Five Eyes expanding its remit beyond security issues.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also since stressed that New Zealand believes in countries collectively raising issues, but it should be under the appropriate banner.

Mahuta gave her second major speech as Foreign Affairs Minister at a NZ China Council meeting on Monday, laying out New Zealand's perspective on its relationship with China.

In it, Mahuta said there are some matters in which the two countries "do not, cannot and will not, agree", before pinpointing concerns with Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's democracy, the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and cyber incidents. 

She acknowledged New Zealand often speaks out alone and also sometimes in joint statements with partners. For example, Aotearoa has previously joined its Five Eyes partners in raising concern about actions in Hong Kong, but has also registered issues independently. 

"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," she said.

However, Mahuta has come under criticism for not joining the Five Eyes on more statements. 

Speaking to reporters following her speech, she said the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing alliance, had a "specific purpose" and she was "uncomfortable" with expanding its remit to comment on broader issues. 

"We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests."

Mahuta also suggested she was taking a different approach to her predecessor, Winston Peters, the New Zealand First leader who left Parliament at the last election. 

"New Zealand has been very clear, 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 out of the remit of the Five Eyes," Mahuta said. 

"We've not favoured that type of approach and have expressed it to Five Eyes partners."

Nanaia Mahuta speaking on Monday.
Nanaia Mahuta speaking on Monday. Photo credit: Newshub.

The relationships between several countries - including Five Eyes members the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada - and China have become increasingly strained this year on the back of accusations of genocide towards China, the imposition of targeted sanctions on the Asian powerhouse, and retalitatory sanctions from Beijing

The actions of other nations, such as New Zealand, towards China have subsequently come under greater scrutiny.

International media reacted to Mahuta's comments on Monday, with British outlets The Times and The Telegraph both claiming in headlines that the Five Eyes had become a group of four.

"Five Eyes on China cut to four as New Zealand puts trade first," The Times stated.

"Five Eyes become four as New Zealand takes different view on China," reads The Telegraph's headline shared on social media.

The Telegraph's piece says Mahuta's call to not allow the intelligence alliance to dictate New Zealand's position on China put it "at odds with the other members of the Five Eyes alliance". 

However, the article then goes on to say UK intelligence sources "were not concerned" by Mahuta's comments, which related to how we communicate concerns outside the Five Eyes' remit.

"Sources suggested there was a difference of opinion on a specific issue over the issuing of joint statements on China but stressed this was not 'a fracturing of the relationship' of the Five Eyes alliance," The Telegraph says. 

United States media outlet Bloomberg headlined its piece 'New Zealand opposes Five Eyes group criticising China's policies', again taking a broad view of Mahuta's comments which were aimed at issuing joint statements on areas of concern outside the Five Eyes' remit. 

The article's first paragraph is more particular. 

"New Zealand is opposed to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance’s moves to broaden its remit and take positions on issues such as China’s human rights record, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said."

That Bloomberg piece was re-published by the Financial Post with the headline: 'New Zealand tells Five Eyes partners: Stick to Intelligence". 

The Australian, which has previously taken a critical view of New Zealand's actions towards China, published a piece called 'Five Eyes running rogue on remit, says New Zealand'.

Speaking to Australian media on Tuesday morning, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said countries should collectively raise concern when warranted.

"We should be banding together where we see issues globally that don't align with the values that we share."

She said Mahuta's point was about under which banner was it most appropriate to do so.

"Is that best done under the banner of a grouping of countries around a security intelligence platform, or is it best done under the banner of a group of countries with shared values, some of which may not belong to that Five Eyes partnership," Ardern told ABC.

"Those collective voices are important, but let's make sure we do it with the appropriate platform."

Over the last few years, there have been accusations that Aotearoa has been placing its trade relationship with China - New Zealand's largest trading partner - over moral issues. 

In 2018, a Canadian report called Aotearoa the "soft underbelly" of the Five Eyes, while the Financial Times last year reported a senior intelligence official as saying New Zealand had been "compromised" by China. 

Earlier this month, New Zealand was labelled China's "useful idiot" by a high-profile Australian television host who alleged Aotearoa wasn't supporting our trans-Tasman partner in standing up to China.

However, many of the critics forgo mentioning New Zealand has signed up to multiple international statements and released many of our own raising concern with China in a number of areas. 

Mahuta joined her Australian counterpart twice in March to call out Beijing, while New Zealand has been a party to statements read out at the United Nations. 

Ardern in March said Aotearoa would continue to raise concerns with China over its treatment of the Uighur people. 

"We are entirely predictable in the way we're dealing with this issue. When we see a concern that we have, we raise it and we raise it directly."