New Zealand breaks ranks with ‘Five Eyes’ spy alliance over anti-China crusade
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 1, 2019. New Zealand has put distance between itself and other partners in the Five Eyes spy alliance over antagonistic moves the group has made against China, which is New Zealand's primary trading partner. | Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool Photo via AP

SYDNEY—New Zealand has seemingly broken ranks with the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence network over their attempt to exert political pressure on China through the network. New Zealand has found that the Five Eyes has overstepped the bounds of its original purpose of intelligence gathering and sharing and that it is now making statements on a whole range of issues including trade, technology, and Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea.

Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Its origins can be traced back to the end of WWII and the alliance formed with the adoption of the Atlantic Charter.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said she is “uncomfortable with expanding the remit” of the Five Eyes partnership. She stated that:

“The Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework and it’s not necessary all the time on every issue to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues and the human rights space, for example.”

This statement is part of New Zealand’s desire for a more “independent” foreign policy from its Five Eye counterparts as it seeks to establish better trade relations with China in light of the expansion of the free trade policy between the two countries. Outlining New Zealand’s future with China, Mahuta said that they want to cultivate mutually respectful ties with China, despite the various disagreements between the two countries on particular matters; however, to achieve this end they’d need to treat each other fairly and honestly.

Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern has expressed a similar sentiment and sees the actions of Five Eyes as having the potential to start a trade war with China. The effects of the heightened tensions with China are already visible in the case of Australia, with the government intervening in and revoking the state of Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative with China under the guise that it’s not in Australia’s national interest.

These disputes have been going on for some time, with China openly condemning the statements made by Five Eyes. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said back in November 2020, regarding the Five Eyes joint statement on the Hong Kong protests:

“No matter if they have five eyes or ten eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded.”

In April, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the Five Eyes of taking “coordinated steps to gang up on China” after Australia and New Zealand signed a joint statement about Xinjiang. In light of this, New Zealand has been taking a more diplomatic approach to their relationship with China. Most recently, New Zealand has declined to join thirteen countries, including all of its Five Eyes partners, in expressing doubt over the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report on the origins of coronavirus. New Zealand wants to independently analyze the report before commenting on the findings. The other countries have claimed that the WHO’s report was delayed and lacked access to complete data. China has perceived this as yet another unfounded attack against them.

Five Eyes origins

One of the main motivations for the formation of the Five Eyes alliance was to combat the supposed threat of Soviet influence in the post-WWII geopolitical landscape. Winston Churchill, in particular, was convinced that if English-speaking countries didn’t band together there would eventually be a “hot” war with the Soviet Union. He stated in his “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946:

“Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States… the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers, leading to common study of potential dangers.…”

Even a cursory glance at history since then will clearly show that these English-speaking countries have been the primary aggressors and instigators of war. As the Cold War progressed, the Five Eyes intelligence network was initially used to spy on the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, but now it monitors communication worldwide. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Five Eyes has turned its gaze towards Southeast Asia and, in particular, the rise of China.

Five Eyes in recent years has brought in a number of “Third Party Partners” sporting the awkward titles of: “Five Eyes Plus Three Against China and Russia,” which included France, Germany, and Japan in 2018 to share information on the foreign activities of China and Russia to assess their threat levels. There is also “Five Eyes Plus Three Against North Korea,” composed of France, Japan, and South Korea to monitor North Korea’s military activities. Other combinations have seen “Six Eyes,” “Nine Eyes,” “Fourteen Eyes,” and the list goes on. Apparently, China must have already poked them as each country only seems to be able to contribute one eye.

Implications of New Zealand’s position

The break in ranks has unsurprisingly received a lot of criticism from the other Five Eyes countries. New Zealand has been described by the capitalist media as “the weakest link in the chain,” according to The Guardian’s (U.K.) diplomatic editor, that they have “blindsided Australia” according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and that Australia needs to “reset” its relationship with New Zealand if the latter “and other Pacific states, are to be pulled back from China’s orbit,” according, again, to an SMH opinion piece.

China has been New Zealand’s biggest trading partner since 2017, accounting for 29% of its export revenue. As mentioned above, New Zealand is attempting to foster less hostile, more respectful diplomatic and economic ties with China, and it has therefore deemed that the lockstep “diplomacy” of Five Eyes is not in its interests.

However, the waters have been muddied regarding New Zealand’s relationship with Five Eyes. Mahuta, less than 24 hours after declaring that she was “uncomfortable” with Five Eyes expanding its sphere of operations, reaffirmed New Zealand’s commitment to the alliance, saying, “New Zealand is a real beneficiary of the arrangement and will continue to actively engage with the Five Eyes alliance as we always have.” What this active engagement will look like in relation to Mahuta’s statement that “we would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues” remains to be seen.

While it is not entirely clear how New Zealand will balance its relationship with China alongside its commitment to the Five Eyes network, as it stands, their position is more nuanced than simply falling in line with the other members. New Zealand is asserting its right to determine its own foreign policy and has called out the other Five Eyes countries for overstepping their boundaries in an ongoing bid to antagonize China.

The Guardian (Australia)


Valentin Cartillier
Valentin Cartillier

Valentin Cartillier writes for The Guardian, published by the Communist Party of Australia.