New Zealand has reportedly told Australia and its other Five Eyes partners that it is "uncomfortable" about expanding the role of the grouping beyond intelligence sharing as it tries to maintain a close economic relationship with China.
The Five Eyes arrangement is ostensibly an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It has its origins in the Second World War and its Cold War aftermath.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta are either naive or lack any appreciation of the scope of the Five Eyes agreement if they think it is just to do with intelligence-sharing arrangements, very important though they are.
The Five Eyes is more like an exclusive club where the members help each other in a range of ways, including political co-operation, all aspects of intelligence and security, sharing secret defence and cyber technology, and receiving favourable US treatment in many unpublicised and sensitive areas of the relationship.
The Five Eyes relationship is so close that exchange officers regularly work in other partners' most sensitive intelligence areas, often being allowed access to that country's eyes-only information. All partners remain secure in the knowledge that the Five Eyes parties don't spy on each other.
In the past year, the Five Eyes have expressed apparently co-ordinated views on China-related issues, including Beijing's abusive treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and adverse political developments in Hong Kong. New Zealand has generally avoided participating in those statements, which has fanned Five Eyes' concerns that it is undermining the alliance's solidarity.
New Zealand, of any of the partners, should realise it's on dangerous ground if it wants to act independently of the Five Eyes relationship. Back in 1985, I was working in Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) when New Zealand Labour prime minister David Lange barred US Navy ship visits to New Zealand ports unless they declared whether they were carrying nuclear weapons. It was a popular policy domestically, because New Zealanders generally did not feel threatened by Soviet nuclear missiles.
However it infuriated the Americans, who practised a non-declaratory policy so that the Soviet Union and China could never be sure which US Navy ships were carrying nuclear weapons. In response, to New Zealand's action, Washington severed intelligence and military ties with New Zealand and downgraded political and diplomatic exchanges. US secretary of state George Shultz confirmed that the United States would no longer maintain its security guarantee to New Zealand, although the ANZUS treaty structure remained in place.
Cutting New Zealand off from receiving US intelligence product immediately affected all of the Five Eyes partners' interactions with New Zealand. At that time, the US probably contributed 75 percent of the intelligence product shared between the partners, and New Zealand probably less than 1 percent.
After the US action New Zealand received very little Australian intelligence output, because Australian agencies had to "sanitise" their product to ensure it did not contain any US source material. In the case of DIO, the New Zealand intelligence liaison officer would come in from the high commission once a week to receive what was effectively an open-source briefing.
It took decades for New Zealand to work its way back into the Five Eyes relationship. It took a change of government and protracted New Zealand military commitments to US-led coalition forces in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan to regain US confidence. Even now, Washington is probably wary of New Zealand Labour governments.
Our friends across the ditch continue to be very minor contributors to the Five Eyes intelligence relationship, so isolating New Zealand once again and possibly losing its limited reporting on the South Pacific wouldn't cause the Five Eyes members too many intelligence concerns. The sigint relationship with the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau would probably continue - as it did after other links were severed in 1985.
Prime Minister Ardern may feel it's worth trying to compartmentalise New Zealand's interests to have a more beneficial economic relationship with China. In January, the two countries signed an agreement to upgrade their existing free trade pact, provide expanded market access, widen tariff-free schemes, and expedite export processes.
However, from a mutual defence point of view, "failure to abide by club rules" could once again affect New Zealand's ANZUS status. New Zealand is also endangering the benefits of a close security partnership balanced very disproportionately in its favour, and risks being marginalised in many unpublicised ways by its closest friends in Washington, London, Ottawa, and Canberra.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.