If New Zealand wants to retain its international reputation, it must be brave and take genuine steps to nip the Chinese government’s soft power campaign in the bud, writes Peter McKenzie

The great lie of New Zealand’s foreign policy is that it is independent. This is not true. The reality is that New Zealand has deep ties to both the United States and China.

New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes intelligence network alongside the United States, and China is our largest trading partner. We supported the United States by deploying combat troops in Afghanistan, and we were the first developed country to agree to China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

New Zealand is respected by states around the world not because we are entirely independent from dominant states and their power struggles, but because we have successfully engaged with those world powers without becoming partisans of either side. New Zealand’s foreign policy is better described as a high wire act of balanced engagement.

China’s ever-deepening influence campaign in New Zealand threatens to shatter that reputation. Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s now-notorious paper Magic Weapons established how China has pursued greater influence in states such as New Zealand through establishing deep relationships with key power brokers and institutions.

Recent events have demonstrated the severity of this problem. Millions of dollars of political donations have been funnelled from individuals with strong Communist Party connections to our major political parties. Politicians have been found to have connections to the Chinese Communist Party or affiliated organisations. Former high-ranking politicians are regularly given lucrative spots on the boards of major Chinese companies. Successive New Zealand governments have steadfastly avoided criticising China’s transgressions, such as the brutal repression of Uighur Muslims or China’s rapid militarisation of the South China Sea.

Such efforts are not unusual. Countries around the world are dealing with vigorous influence campaigns by the Chinese government. After struggling with repayments on high-interest loans from the Chinese government, Sri Lanka was recently forced to hand over ownership of a major port. The port’s strategic position near lucrative shipping lanes and the Indian coast has led to fears it will be used for military purposes.

Closer to home, Australia has also been struggling with this. Among other things, an Australian senator improperly accepted donations from a businessman with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and in turn lobbied on the businessman’s behalf. The senator even contradicted his party and defended Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

The difference is that Australia quickly moved to empower its intelligence agencies to investigate foreign influence and reformed its laws around political donations and declarations of interest. By contrast, New Zealand has taken no observable action.

Given that failure to act it is no surprise that other countries perceive New Zealand as increasingly within China’s sphere of influence. Bernard Hickey has previously reported in Newsroom how Australian officials now refer to the Five Eyes network as ‘Four Eyes and One Wink’. Australian officials are hardly alone in seeing New Zealand as deliberately oblivious to China’s growing aggressiveness.

How could other small states have any confidence that New Zealand would represent them and stand up to China in the future when New Zealand is unwilling or unable to stand up to China now?

Even if there was dispute as to the extent of Chinese government influence in New Zealand, merely having a reputation for wilful ignorance to China’s soft power campaign poses an existential threat to New Zealand’s outsized global influence.

Consider New Zealand’s successful 2014 campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Having a voice in the deliberations of the world’s most iconic international institution was a diplomatic coup for a small state with infinitesimal hard power. New Zealand competed against Turkey and Spain in the Security Council election. It was easy to imagine these two much-better resourced states locking New Zealand out.

Nevertheless, New Zealand won. It did so by arguing that it would skilfully represent the views of smaller, less powerful states. The premise of that argument is that New Zealand would not simply accede to the demands of those more powerful states.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that argument having credibility today. How could other small states have any confidence that New Zealand would represent them and stand up to China in the future when New Zealand is unwilling or unable to stand up to China now?

New Zealand’s previous global influence has been a boon. It has boosted our economic development through expanding opportunities for trade. It has guaranteed our national security by ensuring access to and cooperation with institutions such as NATO. It has opened opportunities for New Zealanders by ensuring states all around the world have no objections to accepting our citizens. Losing that global influence and the advantages it entails would be devastating.

There are many reasons New Zealand politicians have been loath to to protect New Zealand’s reputation of balanced engagement, and the advantages it brings, through decisive action.

The first appears to be a fear of being perceived as racist. But there is a difference between challenging the actions of a government, and discriminating against a group of individuals. Recent political rhetoric surrounding Chinese New Zealanders has been dismal. But it is possible to avoid being racist without being silent. Indeed when reasonable politicians fail to challenge the obvious transgressions of China’s government, it simply gives xenophobes the limelight. As Tze Ming Mok put it in a recent column in the NZ Herald, “We deserve better than to be trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought. Abandoning us to this fate is racism too.”

It would be important for politicians to take action on the issue of foreign influence campaigns regardless of the state from which such efforts originated. The fact that in this case the perpetrator is the Chinese government is almost beside the point.

The second reason New Zealand politicians appear to be loath to protect New Zealand’s reputation of balanced engagement has been a fear of retaliation by the Chinese government. This fear is misplaced. New Zealand has been targeted by China because China thinks New Zealand is a valuable partner, whether for our international influence, our agricultural products, our educational institutions, or any number of other reasons. If we take reasonable action to limit foreign influence, China is likely to be just as solicitous of us as it is now because New Zealand will still have those desirable traits.

This fear of retaliation also fails to recognise that in the absence of decisive action, New Zealand will become more and more become reliant on the Chinese government as our main overseas benefactor. That would leave us in an impossible position where retaliation from the Chinese government really does become a significant threat.

Of course if we were to take action now it would not be the first time New Zealand has risked angering a dominant benefactor in order to do the right thing. In the mid 20th century, New Zealand’s position in the world relied upon our adherence to the United States. It was that adherence which led to us deploying troops to Korea and Vietnam. In return for our loyalty America and its vast military guaranteed our national security, which was thought to be crucial in the unpredictable global environment of the Cold War.

But that did not dissuade New Zealand from speaking out against nuclear proliferation generally and America’s nuclear-status specifically. Prime Minister David Lange famously went so far as to say he could smell the uranium on the breath of a American debating opponent, and of America writ large. Lange’s subsequent decision to make New Zealand nuclear-free cost us America’s security guarantee, something many feared would render us helplessly vulnerable.

However that decision to stand up against America in 1985 is what created New Zealand’s reputation for balanced engagement. Despite deep economic and military connections, we showed that the American government could not cow us into submission. If we wish to retain that valuable international reputation then New Zealand must be equally brave and take genuine steps to nip the Chinese government’s soft power campaign in the bud.

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