SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - A polite disagreement between Pacific Ocean neighbours on Thursday (April 22) showed a fissure among US allies over China, underscoring the difficulties Joe Biden faces in forging a common front against Beijing.
New Zealand distanced itself from Australia, a partner in the Five Eyes along with the US, UK and Canada, over whether the intelligence-sharing pact should admonish China on its human-rights record. The organisation dates back to an alliance forged in World War II.
"The Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework," Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said at a news conference with her Australian counterpart Marise Payne in Wellington.
"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 in the human-rights space."
While Payne acknowledged that New Zealand had the right to determine its own response to human-rights issues, she made the case for speaking out: "We also have to acknowledge that China's outlook - the nature of China's external engagement both in our region and globally - has changed in recent years."
The exchange reflects how New Zealand is becoming uncomfortable with the Five Eyes expressing increasingly critical views on China-related issues, including Beijing's treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and suppression of democracy activists in Hong Kong. New Zealand has on occasion opted not to co-sign those statements and instead issued one separately, such as in January following mass arrests in Hong Kong.
The other countries in the Five Eyes have dismissed any notion of a deep divide. A senior Biden administration official, who asked not to be identified, played down any differences of opinion and said there's no concern of New Zealand becoming a stumbling block to cooperation in the group.
A UK official similarly said any tension hasn't seeped down to a working level, and there's no push to kick out New Zealand.
Still, some observers say New Zealand's reluctance to speak out with the Five Eyes is a sign Beijing is gaining influence in Wellington's affairs. China remains the nation's top trading partner, responsible for 29 per cent of its total export revenue, and the countries in February signed an upgraded free-trade deal expected to bolster New Zealand exporters.
"New Zealand is adopting an extremely Beijing-friendly stance on these questions and breaking away from a much stronger position adopted by" the other Five Eyes partners, Clive Hamilton, a professor at the Charles Sturt University and author of Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia, said in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday.
China's efforts have worked "extremely effectively, to the point where the Five Eyes alliance of intelligence sharing has been questioned," he added.
Unlike the other Five Eyes partners, which have all had increasingly fraught relations with China in recent years, New Zealand has been able to maintain a status quo with Beijing.
Beijing "appreciates the fact that the New Zealand government attaches importance to and commits itself to developing bilateral relations," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in the capital Tuesday.
"China-New Zealand relations have made considerable progress," he said, adding the nations were able to "rise above distractions." That's a stark contrast with Beijing's recent treatment of Australia, which has seen ministerial-level ties frozen for a year.
A call by Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government to let independent investigators into Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus was rewarded with a series of trade reprisals on Australian goods, including coal, barley and wine.
"New Zealand is aware it's exposed economically to its reliance to China and knows if it speaks out too much it could be punished, like what's happened to Australia," Alexander Gillespie, a researcher in international law at the University of Waikato, said in an interview.
"There's a big push for multilateral groups like the Five Eyes to show the shared values of liberal democracies, but it's obvious New Zealand is not at the forefront of any of those initiatives," he said. If that stance is maintained, he added, it would look as if the nation is openly trying to appease China.
Mark Tanner, a New Zealander who is managing director of Shanghai-based marketing and research company China Skinny, said his nation's Five Eyes position reflected its history of taking independent stances sometimes at odds with its US ally - such as its nuclear-free declaration in 1984 and refusal to join the Iraq war two decades later.
"I don't think any New Zealanders are under any illusion that this is not a difficult balancing act," Tanner said about maintaining strong relations with China, along with the US and its allies.
While many citizens may be at odds with Beijing over human rights, he added, "taking an independent assessment and stance on such matters stays true to our roots as Kiwis."