New Zealand, the PRC, and our traditional partners

An interesting, thought-provoking, comment appeared yesterday afternoon, in response to Thursday’s post prompted by the Prime Minister’s claims (reported here, with a link to the original radio interview) that New Zealand was free of foreign interference (particularly from the People’s Republic of China).   The comment was from Peter Jennings, head of the think-tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.  Jennings was previously a senior Australian defence and national security official.   This was the text of his comment.

I listened to Jacinda Ardern’s Radio NZ interview and in fairness to her, she does say that the issue of Chinese interference is ‘a live item for me’ that ‘we’re never not looking’ and that ‘constant vigilance’ is being applied.

I take that to mean that the NZ national security establishment and intelligence services are indeed doing their job. The problem is that NZ politicians have no appetite to tell their voters what is really going on.

Contrast that to the very active political debate in Australia and even more strident comments by US Vice President Mike Pence in a speech to the Hudson Institute earlier this month (which I write about here:

New Zealand’s allies are showing increasing alarm about China’s disruptive role in regional security, their industrial scale use of cyber and human intelligence to steal intellectual property and their active promotion of United Front organisations and political donations to ‘influence’ local politics.

NZ political and media sensitivities being what they are, I’m loath as an Australian to offer any advice, but it must surely be a worry to some in Wellington that NZ’s closest partners are taking a radically different approach to dealing with China. How will this impact on Wellington’s relations with Canberra and Washington DC?

You will know of Hugh White book, The China Choice, which argued that Australia’s ‘ultimate’ choice was between siding with the US or with China as the two countries contested for primacy in the Asia-Pacific. If New Zealand has a China choice it is surely between Canberra and Beijing. So what Australia thinks about China should matter to New Zealand.

Does what New Zealand’s leaders think about China matter to Australia? Most certainly. I regret that Canberra doesn’t pay as much attention to NZ as the relationship really deserves, but the current passivity among NZ’s leadership towards Beijing’s influencing of your own political system is most certainly being watched with concern in Canberra. I ask a genuinely open question: does NZ still value the defence and intelligence relationship it has with Australia?

On the first paragraph, I think that is probably a fair summary.    We can reasonably conclude that the intelligence services are probably doing their job, and the Prime Minister explicitly referred to espionage and telecommunications laws.   This is also consistent with what (little) was released of the intelligence agencies’ post-election briefings last year, and to what I heard at this session earlier in the year, attended by people in a position to know.

Speakers were keen to convince us that officialdom was right up with the play (the issue being “owned” overall by DPMC), and working hand in hand with our Five Eyes partners,  They weren’t, we were told, “naive and unprepared” but rather actively engaged in “detecting and countering interference” –  apparently some overseas partners are even envious of some of the telecommunications legislation implemented here a few years ago (an observation that should probably leave New Zealanders a bit nervous).  Any suggestion of a threat to our membership of Five Eyes is, we were told, “spurious”.  I presume that means “false”.

I guess I came away with the impression that officials think they are more or less on top of the outright illegal stuff.   One hopes they are correct.

But that stuff wasn’t really the focus of the interviewer’s question earlier in the week to the Prime Minister.

It was the other stuff, mostly (perhaps all) legal, that was where the concerns were being raised, and the questions posed to the Prime Minister.    And there I don’t think the issue is just (in Jennings’ words) that

The problem is that NZ politicians have no appetite to tell their voters what is really going on.

It is worse than that.  By her own behaviour –  mostly by neither doing nor saying anything, just letting things be – the Prime Minister demonstrates that she does not believe there is a problem at all, or that if there is stuff going on, it just doesn’t matter. (The Opposition is at least as bad, but they aren’t now in government.   Things like

  • she is content to have (well, she appointed him) Raymond Huo, reportedly heavily involved in various United Front groups, chairing a major parliamentary committee,
  • she is content to have Labour campaign among the Chinese community using a Xi Jinping slogan,
  • she is content to have her party president praise Xi and the regime  (although it was marginally encouraging to read this story this morning and see that Nigel Haworth had declined to become an honorary president of one of Yikun Zhang’s activities –  unlike Peter Goodfellow, Jian Yang, and Raymond Huo.)
  • she was content to honour Yikun Zhang,
  • she has expressed no discontent at the large mainland donations her predecessor Phil Goff used to fund his mayoral campaign (or initiated any law changes to close that loophole in future),
  • she is content not to call out the Jian Yang situation as unacceptable,
  • she seems content with the dominance of the local Chinese-language media by interests sympathetic to Beijing, and PRC news sources.
  • she seems content with Confucius Institutes –  funded from Beijing –  in our universities and schools,
  • she is apparently content with public universities forming close commercial and research partnerships with PRC universities, themselves increasingly under the thumb of the regime (in the last few days a former security official was appointed head of Peking University) and with
  • the increasing reliance of our universities on (the income from) students from the PRC.
  • and despite her calls for “kindness” to be some sort of watchword guide to policy, she is apparently content with the way no one in the New Zealand political system –  her party or others –  ever says a word of criticism of Beijing, despite the growing internal repression and the external expansionism.

Either she is blind, or she simply doesn’t care about this quasi-vassalage and the debauchment of our political system.   I’m not sure which would be worse.   Just possibly, she isn’t that comfortable with the situation personally but….she isn’t just any citizen, she is the Prime Minister.

Jennings goes on to note how the approach of the New Zealand political establishment (National and Labour, New Zealand First and Greens) seems increasingly out of step with that of our “closest partners” –  he mentions the US and Australia, but there is also increasing sign of the UK taking the issues more seriously, including having ships assert freedom of navigation rights in the South China Sea.  He wonders “how will this impact on Wellington’s relations with Canberra and Washington DC?” and goes on to note, and pose a question, as follows

….the current passivity among NZ’s leadership towards Beijing’s influencing of your own political system is most certainly being watched with concern in Canberra. I ask a genuinely open question: does NZ still value the defence and intelligence relationship it has with Australia? 

One of the interesting things about the Australian situation –  where former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr is a vocal defender of Beijing and suggests there are few/no issues for Australia –  is that the leaders of the two main parties seem fairly united in treating the issues as serious, including in passing the recent new legislation.  No one can seriously suggest that Australia has dealt with all the issues –  only yesterday the PRC successfully managed to go behind the Federal government’s back and get Victoria to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative –  but they seem in a much better place than the New Zealand situation, where the leaders of all the parties (especially the two main ones) seem united in an unspoken agreement not to call out any behaviour.  Australian Labor got rid of Senator Sam Dastyari; New Zealand Labour won’t even criticise the presence in our Parliament (on the other side) of a former PRC intelligence official, one who acknowledges deliberately misrepresenting his past to get into New Zealand.

But Jennings’s question is an interesting one?  Does “New Zealand” still value the defence and intelligence relationship it has with Australia (or the United States)?   I presume the answer depends on who you are talking about, and perhaps there are parallels to the rupture with the US – which also put us offside with Australia –  in 1985?  Back then, the defence and intelligence hierarchy probably put a great deal of weight on those relationships.  But in the end it didn’t matter.  Probably not many politicians really wanted to break with the US even then, but no one was willing to pay the price –  perhaps small internationally but substantial in terms of internal party politics – to avoid it.   The New Zealand public had probably never been that consistently keen on the US relationship –  it had been a relatively new thing after all, mostly post-Suez –  and there was enough angst and disapproval of Ronald Reagan, and reaction post-Muldoon, that an isolated little country was willing to step off the playing field.

I wonder how different it is now.    (Probably like most Australians) most New Zealanders are strongly anti-Trump (and instinctively Democrats), and if anything the fact that Trump and Mike Pence are talking about issues around China, including domestic political interference, probably inclines many New Zealanders to downplay the issue further.  As for Australia, (justifiably or not –  I think mostly not) there is a widespread disapproval here around the treatment of illegal migrants, asylum seekers (“boat people”) by Australia (easy for New Zealanders, when we are so far from the immediate risk), and a resentment among many about Australia’s deportations of some of the shady New Zealand citizens who’ve fallen foul of Australian law.  New Zealand governments have, over the years, become mendicants, begging on behalf of their “guest workers” in Australia, and it doesn’t automatically foster attitudes of trust or camaraderie as regards Australian governments.  I’m not defending these attitudes in New Zealand – mostly I don’t share them –  just attempting to describe them.

And, of course, as in most countries most citizens most of the time don’t give much attention to defence or foreign policy, let alone the subtleties of the activities here of a regime like the PRC.  And with no moral leadership from the heads of our political parties, no real leaders calling out the nature of the risks/threats, it is hard to imagine that the mass of New Zealanders would be unduly bothered if at some point in the next few years New Zealand were eased (or booted) out of the Five Eyes grouping.  Many –  that strange mentality that seems to value “independence” for its own sake, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the alternative sides (and how much “whatabout-ism” do we hear, suggesting that somehow US “interference” here is a thing –  let alone a thing on a par with the PRC) –  might well wear it as a badge of pride, as (in different circumstances) so many did in the mid-80s.   At least the 80s stance had an (arguable) moral dimension, but whatever moral clothes people attempted to wrap around an opting out now, they would be threadbare at best, given the nature of the PRC regime, and the threat it poses now here, and abroad, let alone to its own people.

Of course, it is worth noting that the government did announce a few months ago the purchase of the P8 aircraft.   That suggests some value being put on maintaining the US and Australian relationships.  Still, one has to wonder whether a Labour/Greens government –  feasible if last week’s poll numbers carried into an election –  would have been willing to have paid that price.    And that price didn’t involve making any calls that, at least directly, upset Beijing.  But when a few weeks later the government released a defence policy paper, with a few mild remarks about the PRC, (a) the Prime Minister never associated herself with that stance, and (b) the leader of the National Party took the opportunity to warn the government not to upset Beijing.

So there is no political leadership apparently willing to take any stands, and without it probably few New Zealanders will much care that our traditional partners and allies are taking a different stance.  Many would probably wear it as a badge of pride.   Perhaps it would be different if the White House changes hands in 2021, or when (as seems most probable) Labor takes office in Australia next year, but I rather doubt it –  and it is worth remembering that Labor was in power in Australia in 1985.

I’m not sure what the circuitbreaker could be, what might shift politics and political debate to a more serious and self-respecting plane.  More likely, as with the continued failure to do anything about decades of relative economic decline, the established political parties just will keep on together, debauching our system and society, too craven ever to make any sort of stand, somehow persusaded that on the one hand Beijing holds the whip hand (it doesn’t) and on the other, that it really doesn’t matter much and no one cares.   If so, the sad and shameful degradation of New Zealand will continue.

Meanwhile, anyone interested in yet more on the evil way in which Beijing treats its own people –  while our government (and most others) say nothing –  might consider reading this article, detailing how the regime simply (compulsorily) moves its agents (a million of them reportedly) into the houses of Uighur people in Xinjiang province –  those not already in concentration camps – to live alongside them.  The agents are supposed to chivy people into conformity and report any deviations –  diet, ideology, religion, or whatever –  to the authorities.   And this is the regime our political “leaders” provide cover for.  They court –  and even honour – its agents and supporters, take their money, recruit them into Parlisment, act as honorary patrons to their organisation, and seem to care not a jot what the regime does here, at home, or anywhere in between.