New Zealand spies call out foreign interference, including by China, in first-of-its-kind report

Foreign interference linked to China "in and against New Zealand" is labelled an "intelligence concern" by the country's spies in their first-ever comprehensive assessment of threats against Aotearoa published publicly.

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) on Friday released a report on the threats of violent extremism, foreign interference and espionage facing New Zealand. It comes in response to a recommendation from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 shootings that an annual threatscape be published.

The report identifies strategic competition, declining social trust, technological innovation and global economic instability as the four key factors having the greatest impact on the threat environment in 2023.

On foreign interference - defined in the report as meaning a deceptive, corruptive or coercive act by a foreign state, often through a proxy, attempting to influence, disrupt or subvert New Zealand's interests - the report mentions three countries: People's Republic of China (PRC), Iran and Russia. 

"Only a small number of states engage in interference against New Zealand, but some do so persistently and with the potential for significant harm," the report says.

The "most notable" interference activity is the "continued targeting of New Zealand's diverse ethnic Chinese communities", the report says.

"We see these activities carried out by groups and individuals linked to the intelligence arm of the People's Republic of China (PRC)."

The report makes it clear that those responsible for foreign interference are the states themselves and the agents working on their behalf - not people in New Zealand with ethnic connections to those states.

Strategic competition - China's "growing assertiveness is mentioned - is having an impact, the report says.

"PRC's efforts to advance its political, economic, military and security involvement in the Pacific is a major factor driving strategic competition in our home region. 

"PRC has significant and growing intelligence and security capabilities, and its efforts are increasing New Zealand's exposure to the consequences of strategic competition."

It says the NZSIS is "aware of ongoing activity in and against New Zealand and our home region that is linked to the PRC's intelligence services".

"This is a complex intelligence concern for New Zealand."

New Zealand's position in the world, our links to other Pacific countries, and shared interests "will draw the attention of foreign intelligence services who want to inform foreign governments on New Zealand's government policy and strategy in the region, and find ways to create conditions more favourable to those states".

Foreign interference is categorised in the report as either political interference or societal interference.

Political interference is an act by a state to "influence, disrupt or subvert another state's governance or political systems by deceptive, corruptive or coercive means".

"In New Zealand this has largely taken the form of efforts to deceptively influence New Zealand policy-making."

The report provided a case study of a representative of a foreign state - which isn't named - last year secretly working with New Zealand-based community figures "with the intent to persuade a New Zealander with political influence to change their position on a subject of sensitivity to that foreign state".

"The foreign state representative probably conveyed instructions to a number of New Zealand-based community figures, likely in an inauthentic attempt to portray a united grassroots movement against the political figure's position. 

"The responsible foreign state is known to seek to suppress dissenting views on issues of sensitivity, and assert its own view of the issue as the views of all people with links to that state."

The report says the foreign state also required the individuals to report back and provide evidence they had done what had been asked of them. 

"NZSIS is aware that many of the individuals are committed and responsive to the instructions of the foreign state, and would be responsive to future direction to advance the position of the foreign state. NZSIS provided protective security briefings to the individuals who were targeted."

Iran is mentioned in the context of "societal interference", meaning "acts by foreign states that are intended to influence, disrupt or subvert New Zealand's communities and nongovernment sectors by deceptive, corruptive or coercive means".

The report says the NZSIS has identified Iran monitoring and providing reporting on Iranian communities and dissident groups. 

"Globally, Iran has sought to silence dissenting Iranian voices in response to perceived threats to the Islamic Republic. Such activity has historically been unlikely in New Zealand, although the NZSIS continues to assess the threat in light of Iran's increasingly aggressive behaviour internationally."

Declining social trust - which misinformation and disinformation have contributed to - is also having an impact on foreign interference, the report says.

"Foreign states may leverage significant social tensions to further their interests and shape narratives on a topic of interest or to sow disruption. 

"State-backed disinformation doesn't need to be targeted specifically at the New Zealand context to have an effect. New Zealanders will still come across it. 

"Russia's international disinformation campaigns have not targeted New Zealand specifically, but have had an impact on the views of some New Zealanders."

On violent extremism, the report says there is a "realistic possibility" people in New Zealand have the intent and almost certainly the capability to conduct a domestic terrorist attack. However, the spies are not aware of any specific or credible planning.

The NZSIS says the environment continues to be influenced by politically-motivated violent extremism (PMVE), identity-motivated violent extremism (IMVE) and faith-motivated violent extremism (FMVE).

But there has also been an increase in individuals holding "mixed, unstable and unclear" (MUU) ideologies. These are "highly personalised" ideologies with no specific allegiance to a group. 

"Often individuals exhibit behaviour which can be interpreted as 'ideology shopping' or exploring a broad range of extremist beliefs and adopting aspects that suit them personally."

Andrew Hampton.
Andrew Hampton. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Andrew Hampton, the NZSIS Director-General of Security said the report was an upfront assessment of how New Zealand connected with the global security environment and how those with "malicious intent" take steps to undermine New Zealand's democracy and security.

"In recent years, there has been a clear demand for more information about the factors likely to impact our collective safety and security. We hear this from across government, academia and civil society but also at a community level. Our report attempts to provide more clarity. 

"Being more open about national security means that as a country we can develop a greater understanding and be better placed to manage risks."

He said the analysis isn't about "predicting what people or governments will do". 

"Rather it is about understanding the factors that motivate or drive particular choices so we can better prepare ourselves for the security threats of the present and the future."

The full report can be read here.