New Zealand 'uncomfortable' with expanding remit of Five Eyes - Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says New Zealand is "uncomfortable" with invoking the Five Eyes to speak up on issues beyond intelligence matters. 

The Five Eyes alliance is a group of countries with similar backgrounds - the United States, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - that share security-related intelligence. 

The group has recently invoked the alliance on broader issues than intelligence, such as the degradation of democracy in Hong Kong and alleged mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang region. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned the Five Eyes in November to be "careful not to get poked in the eye", after the group expressed concern about Hong Kong. 

Last month New Zealand joined its Five Eyes partners in supporting sanctions on Chinese officials linked to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The Chinese Embassy responded by urging New Zealand to "stop using Xinjiang to interfere in China's internal affairs". 

It now appears New Zealand will take a more cautious approach to China, with Mahuta telling reporters on Monday she wants to see the scope of the intelligence network stay narrow. 

"We are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of the Five Eyes," she said. "We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests."

Mahuta said it was a departure from the approach of her predecessor, Winston Peters, who held the foreign affairs portfolio during the previous term of Government when Labour was in coalition with NZ First. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"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 of 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."

New Zealand was labelled the "soft underbelly" of the Five Eyes spy network in a Canadian report in 2018, and Mahuta's comments could be perceived as an accommodation to China's concerns. 

There's a perception China has too much influence on New Zealand. China is New Zealand's top trading partner, and we have a lot to lose if the relationship breaks down. 

A top senior intelligence official, who was not named, told the Financial Times last year New Zealand was "compromised" by China and its Five Eyes membership was "on the edge of viability".  

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor came under fire from MPs across the ditch earlier this year, after he suggested Australia practice "more diplomacy" when dealing with China. It came after New Zealand renewed its free trade agreement with China. 

But not all of Mahuta's comments, made during a speech on Monday to the NZ China Council, were in China's favour. 

Mahuta expressed concern about growing debt in the Pacific thanks to loans from China in order to build much-needed infrastructure. She pointed out that New Zealand's Pacific aid comes in the form of "grants, not loans". 

Mahuta also said New Zealand will not shy away from continuing to speak out on matters such as human rights violations.  

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

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