China heaps praise on Nanaia Mahuta's 'remarkable' Five Eyes comments

China has heaped praise on New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister for expressing discomfort with expanding the scope of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.

Nanaia Mahuta gave her second major speech as Foreign Affairs Minister on Monday to the NZ China Council, discussing New Zealand's bilateral relationship with China.

In it, she acknowledged the upgrade to our Free Trade Agreement with China signed in January, the countries' Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which "continues to serve us well", and our commitment to the one-China policy. 

The minister also touched on issues like Hong Kong's judicial autonomy and the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, where the two countries "do not, cannot, and will not, agree". 

However, despite those being matters of concern New Zealand has consistently raised with China independently and in conjunction with other nations, there is growing pressure for New Zealand to speak out more frequently with our Five Eyes partners. 

The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom - all members of the Five Eyes - have ramped up their actions towards China in recent months, imposing historic sanctions on Chinese officials linked to Xinjiang. The US and Canada's Parliament have also declared China is committing genocide in the province. 

China has long challenged the Five Eyes and reacted fiercely to the nations' coordinated actions, imposing sanctions of its own

Mahuta on Monday argued the Five Eyes alliance had a "specific purpose" and she was "uncomfortable" with expanding its remit beyond intelligence and security issues.

"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," the minister said. 

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

Those comments sparked some British media outlets to claim New Zealand was ditching the Five Eyes. Responding to that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday said there was no need for "offshore" concern as New Zealand was committed to the Five Eyes partnership and Mahuta was simply saying we wouldn't use the group as a first point of messaging on non-security matters. 

However, Chinese state media have taken the idea of New Zealand leaving the Five Eyes and run with it. 

The Global Times on Tuesday night published a so-called "expert assessment" written by a research fellow at a state-run trade and economic cooperation academy.

The piece features a cartoon with four eyes heading off in an "anti-China" direction, while one eye wearing a New Zealand flag holds a map and appears to be considering moving in another direction towards "trade". 

It says, given the "US is sparing no efforts in pushing the alliance… against China", Mahuta's comment about being uncomfortable expanding the Five Eyes' remit was "remarkable" and "drew praises in China".

"Despite mounting pressure, Wellington does not show intention to follow the lead of the US at the expense of its own national interests," the Global Times says. "The Five Eyes alliance, which originated from World War II, has become an anti-China clique, serving the US' interests."

"Moreover, it has now turned into a source of instability among the international community, threatening the sustainable development of the world."

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub.

The article goes on to say while Australia has "tied itself to the US' chariot", New Zealand "has maintained a relatively independent approach on foreign policies, paving the way for the country to pursue policies that benefit its own economy and citizens". 

Relations between China and Australia soured last year on the back of Australia calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and aggressively calling out China's treatment of the Uighurs and interference in Hong Kong. China annoyed Australia in December when a senior official shared an inflammatory image of an Australian soldier. 

With the "drastic deterioration in China-Australia relations", the Global Times says Chinese investors may choose New Zealand as a "preferred destination in Oceania as Canberra has been damaging its business environment by taking a discriminatory attitude toward Chinese capital".

"Maintaining strategic independence is the crucial premise of long-term economic development for any country, or it'll end up being held hostage by the political schemes of other powers." 

China has been New Zealand's largest trading partner since 2017 with two-way trade including exports and imports of goods and services exceeding NZ$33 billion. 

In her speech, Mahuta said the trading relationship was one "in which all New Zealanders have an interest". However, she also said there is "value in diversity" and "prudent not to put all eggs in a single basket".

Reacting to the New Zealand minister's speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin late on Tuesday night (NZT) said China "appreciates the fact that the New Zealand government attaches importance to and commits itself to developing bilateral relations".

He described China and New Zealand as "important cooperative partners" that have made "considerable progress".

"Under the new circumstances, China is ready to make joint efforts with New Zealand to carry forward the spirit of 'striving to be the first', strengthen dialogue, deepen cooperation, remove distractions and work for greater development of China-New Zealand comprehensive strategic partnership."

Wang, however, said China was opposed to countries "using the so-called Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other issues to interfere in China's internal affairs". Beijing has always denied mistreating the Uighur people in Xinjiang despite substantial evidence suggesting otherwise.