While the Australian government's hard line on multiple China-related matters fails to waver, New Zealand has given yet another indication it will distance itself from its allies and not follow suit in their own relationship with China.
Speaking on NZ-China relations at the NZ China Council in Wellington on Monday, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said Wellington was "uncomfortable" with the direction the Five Eyes alliance was taking, and would not provoke China regarding non-intelligence matters.
The alliance between the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand based around sharing security-related intelligence has recently been invoked by members over broader Chinese matters including the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, and the alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
While Canberra has pressed China on such issues, repeatedly stressing it will not be bullied into abandoning its values, New Zealand has taken a more cautionary approach with its largest trade partner.
"We would much rather prefer to look for multilateral opportunities to express our interests on a number of issues," Ms Mahuta said.
She noted a concerted shift as a result of the end of the coalition with New Zealand First in October 2020, where New Zealand has distanced itself from Five Eyes and its recent direction.
"New Zealand has been very clear, certainly in this term 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," Ms Mahuta said.
"They really exist outside of the remit of the Five Eyes. We don't favour that type of approach and have expressed that to Five Eyes partners."
In November, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lashed out at Five Eyes following a joint statement criticising China's behaviour in Hong Kong.
"No matter how many eyes they have, five or ten or whatever, should anyone dare to undermine China's sovereignty, security and development interests, be careful not to get poked in the eye," Mr Zhao told reporters.
On Monday, Ms Mahuta stressed New Zealand's relationship with China was "in good health".
Chinese media critical of Australia's 'wishful thinking'
In a Global Times editorial earlier this month Yu Lei, chief research fellow at Research Center for Pacific Island Countries at Liaocheng University, criticised Australian media coverage and sections of the Morrison government for the belief New Zealand must follow Australia's lead.
"It is wishful thinking. Wellington has long remained independent with its national interests, and has been reluctant to obey orders from Washington and Canberra," he explained for the Beijing mouthpiece.
Mr Yu also said the diversity in the Ardern government, including the appointment of Ms Mahuta as the first female Maori foreign affairs minister, meant Wellington wasn't preoccupied by matters overseas.
"In comparison to the US and Australia, where the white mainly determines their foreign policy, the Maori today have occupied a considerable position in politics.
"Therefore, Wellington's policy focuses more on domestic affairs and tends to be more pragmatic."
And while Mr Yu noted New Zealand was heavily reliant on China as a trade partner, Ms Mahuta said on Monday being "reliant on any one market puts us in a very difficult position".
Her remarks come in the wake of a torrid 2020 for many of Australia's exports to China as Beijing slapped sanctions on products such as wine, barley and beef in what is widely perceived as punishment for vocal stances on several issues China deems internal matters, as well as implementing restrictions on Chinese investment in Australia.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on Indo-Pacific democracies to stick together in the fight against "authoritarian regimes".
“We’re not blind to the geopolitical realities. The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of strategic competition,” he said.
“Cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated, including from state-sponsored actors, and frequent.
“Economic coercion is being employed as a tool of statecraft. Liberal rules and norms are under assault.”
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