‘Something has shifted’ in NZ’s security and foreign policy for China, says analyst

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NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta
NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta ... joined a Five Eyes statement last week, stating concern over erosion of democracy in Hong Kong's legislative elections. Image: Dom Thomas/RNZ

By Anneke Smith, RNZ News political reporter

New Zealand’s condemnation of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections reflects a “hardening stance” towards China, says a leading defence analyst.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta last week joined her Five Eyes counterparts to express “grave concern” over the erosion of democratic elements of the new electoral system.

“Actions that undermine Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy are threatening our shared wish to see Hong Kong succeed,” the joint statement reads.

Pro-Beijing candidates swept the seats under the new “patriots-only” rules that saw a record-low voting turnout of 30.2 percent; almost half of the previous legislative poll in 2016.

New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States are now urging the People’s Republic of China to respect protected rights and fundamental freedoms of Hong Kong.

Director of 36th Parallel Assessments Dr Paul Buchanan said this reflected New Zealand’s cooling relationship with China as it increasingly aligned itself with its traditional partners.

“It’s very clear something has shifted in the logic of the security community and foreign policy community in Wellington. I tend to believe it is Chinese behaviour rather than pressure from our allies, but it may be a combination of both,” he said.

Increasing Chinese pressure
New Zealand’s relationship with China has come under increasing pressure this year after it raised concerns about Chinese state-funded hacking and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mahuta has previously said New Zealand would be “uncomfortable” with the remit of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance being expanded to include diplomatic matters.

Dr Buchanan said it was not clear if last week’s joint statement on the Hong Kong elections was consistent with this stated independent foreign policy, or a sign New Zealand had abandoned this to better align itself with its traditional partners.

“That’s an open question to me, because I can see that the government can maintain independence and say, ‘simply on the issue of Hong Kong and China we side with our traditional partners, but on any range of other issues, we don’t necessarily fall in line with them’,” he said.

“On the other hand, maybe the government has made a decision that the threat from the Chinese is of such a magnitude it’s time to pick a side, get off straddling the fence and choose the side of our traditional partners because the Chinese values are inimical to the New Zealand way of life.”

Dr Buchanan said a “hardening stance” towards China was in line with the contents of a new defence report that recently identified ‘China’s rise’ and its power struggle with the United States as one of the pre-eminent security risks in the Indo-Pacific.

“This may be more reflective of the security officials’ concerns about China and that may not be shared by the entirety of the current government.

General consensus
“Although, the fact that the foreign minister signed off on this latest Five Eyes statement regarding Hong Kong would indicate that there is a general consensus within the New Zealand foreign policy and security establishment that China is a threat.”

In response to the joint Five Eyes statement on Hong Kong, the Chinese Embassy issued a statement telling the members to stop interfering with Hong Kong and China’s affairs.

Of particular concern, Dr Buchanan said, was China’s explicit assertion in this response it was led by China’s Constitution and the Basic Law, not the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in its administration of Hong Kong.

“The Chinese now have said that the joint declaration signed in 1997, no longer applies and all that applies in Hong Kong is Chinese law.

“So they’ve violated their commitment to that principle and that’s symptomatic of an increasingly-hardened approach to everything, quite frankly, of a policy matter under Xi Jinping.”

Dr Buchanan said New Zealand, whose biggest trading partner is China, was positioned as the most vulnerable of the Five Eyes partners to any potential economic retaliation from China.

“It would be pretty easy to see that if the Chinese are going to retaliate against anybody in the Anglophone world, it would more than likely be us because it’ll cost them very little, people have to change their dietary habits among the Chinese middle class, but it will have a dramatic effect on us because a third of our GDP is tied up with bilateral trade with China.

“But the government has clearly signalled that it’s seeking to diversify. It has now signalled that on the diplomatic and security front, it sees the Chinese increasingly as a malign actor, and so whatever is coming on the horizon, this government at least appears prepared to weather the storm.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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