Praise for Nanaia Mahuta from 'communist dictatorship' China 'deeply concerning', speech 'damaged international reputation' - ACT

The ACT Party is concerned by praise from Beijing for New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister, claiming her recent comments have "damaged our international reputation". 

Nanaia Mahuta spoke to the NZ China Council on Monday, laying out New Zealand's perspective on its bilateral relationship with China, including our trading arrangements and disagreement over issues like interference in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang. 

Although New Zealand has repeatedly spoken out independently and with other countries about these issues, there have been calls for Aotearoa to publicly endorse critical statements made by its Five Eyes partners. In January, Mahuta was criticised for not being party to a Five Eyes statement on arrests in Hong Kong. 

Speaking to reporters after the speech, Mahuta explained the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing alliance, had a "specific purpose" and she was "uncomfortable" with expanding its remit to comment on issues broader than those relating to intelligence and security.

"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 have been widely reported overseas, with British media taking them to suggest the Five Eyes had "become four", as the Telegraph reported

The Times published a fresh opinion piece on Wednesday, calling New Zealand's response to abuses in China "spineless" and questioning Aotearoa's fitness to remain a member of the Five Eyes. That piece has been shared by Alexander Downer, the former Australian Foreign Minister.

"As they say, it's now 4 Eyes and a Wink!" he wrote on Twitter.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday reaffirmed New Zealand's commitment to the group and insisted Mahuta was only saying the Five Eyes wouldn't always be the first point of messaging on non-security matters. 

While the remarks have been criticised in Britain, they've been called "remarkable" by Chinese state media impressed New Zealand wasn't letting our alliance dictate our position. China has taken issue with the Five Eyes in recent months as some members of the partnership have ramped up pressure on the Asian state over abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Responding to the international reaction on Wednesday, ACT's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Brooke van Velden said praise from China "is deeply concerning and shows the Government should be more focused on building stronger ties with our traditional allies".

She said Mahuta's job was to strike a balance between our alliances with traditional partners and our economic partnership with China, our largest trading partner. 

"It's hard to imagine how Nanaia Mahuta could fail harder than being praised by a communist dictatorship and shunned by our democratic allies," van Velden said, referencing international media headlines about New Zealand breaking with the Five Eyes.

"The fact that China has praised Mahuta for her comments shows she went too far and reflects the worrying distance we are developing with our Five Eyes partners," the ACT Party MP said.

"We shouldn't be pandering to the CCP, but should instead show solidarity and support to our democratic allies, especially Australia, which has recently been the recipient of sanctions from China."

Van Velden said the speech "has damaged our international reputation and [Mahuta] should be in damage control".  

New Zealand has previously joined partners in speaking out against China. Mahuta joined her Australian counterpart twice in March to raise concerns with Beijing, while New Zealand directly registered concern with China when a senior official shared an inflammatory image of an Australian soldier last December. 

Mahuta told Newshub on Wednesday evening that the Five Eyes was a "vital security and intelligence partnership for New Zealand" that allows members to "cooperate across intelligence, police, border security, defence, cyber and other security-related portfolios".

"New Zealand is a real beneficiary of the arrangement and will continue to actively engage with the Five Eyes alliance as we always have.

"There will be some areas on which it's useful to coordinate through the Five Eyes platform;  but there will be other areas - human rights for example  - where we want to look to building a broader coalition of countries to take positions on issues of common interest.

"As has been New Zealand’s long standing practice, we cooperate closely with the five nations that are part of the Five Eyes security arrangement, at times we work with a bigger group; other times we join with one or two other likeminded partners; and at times, we make our own statements."

Brooke van Velden and Nanaia Mahuta.
Brooke van Velden and Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty.

In her speech, Mahuta noted the importance of the relationship with China for trade, but also "the value of diversity" and that it was "prudent not to pull all eggs into a single basket".

"The New Zealand Government will continue to work with business to pursue a range of trade opportunities."

She also used "the Dragon and the Taniwha" as a metaphor for the China-New Zealand relationship, noting they have the ability to adapt to changing conditions. 

"I see the Taniwha and the Dragon as symbols of the strength of our particular customs, traditions and values, that aren’t always the same, but need to be maintained and respected.

"And on that virtue we have together developed the mature relationship we have today."

Van Velden called the use of taniwhas and dragons "bizarre rhetoric". 

"There might be a place for mysticism in a competent speech, but the Minister failed to chart a course for New Zealand by addressing the tough issues," she said.

"There was no mention of CCP interference and influence in New Zealand, the South China Sea, or the intimidation of Chinese communities in other countries."

Following her speech, Mahuta said New Zealand was "increasingly concerned about the escalation of presence" in the South China Sea, and urged those in the region to find a solution through dialogue. 

"Any move that is perceived as an aggressive one creates disharmony," the minister said.

Speaking to Australian media on Tuesday morning, 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."