A senior American diplomat has offered some comfort to New Zealand over its role in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, saying the security relationship is “rock solid” despite the Huawei furore.
The GCSB’s interim decision to block Huawei equipment from being used by Spark in its 5G network has sparked fears of retaliation from China against New Zealand, and led to accusations of the Government caving to US pressure.
While New Zealand has denied there was any pressure from allies to block Huawei, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month the country would be unable to share information with any partners which allowed Huawei into their “critical information systems”.
W. Patrick Murphy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was quick to dismiss any imminent threat to New Zealand’s Five Eyes status during a visit to the country.
Speaking to Newsroom, Murphy said the US shared its own experiences with China when speaking to allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.
“We’ve seen a lot of Chinese interference and unfair play in our very open country and open market, whether it’s [intellectual property] theft or state-subsidised approaches to contract arrangements, harassment and intimidation of academics and researchers and students, and taking advantage of our open society where there’s no equal or reciprocal treatment in China…it’s clear that the playing field is not level.”
“Our security relationship and the special arrangement we have with New Zealand along with several other countries is rock solid, and I don’t perceive any disruption to that now or going forward.”
Speaking about Huawei’s potential role in 5G mobile networks, he said the US would “do everything needed to protect our national security” as the world moved to the next generation of technology.
“Where we are going to have concerns is where our security systems, our communications systems have vulnerabilities and could be compromised, and it’s been made very clear from a US perspective, our independent judiciary, that companies like Huawei pose some threats.”
However, Murphy said individual countries would need to come to their own conclusions about Huawei based on their national security priorities, offering some positive words about the “strong partnership” between the US and New Zealand.
“Our security relationship and the special arrangement we have with New Zealand along with several other countries is rock solid, and I don’t perceive any disruption to that now or going forward – it’s very strong and I know working together we are going to overcome any particular obstacles that might arise.”
He ducked a question about the potential consequences for New Zealand if it were to reverse its ban on Huawei, saying: “I think that’s hypothetical, because that’s an issue that’s not in front of us right now – as diplomats we deal with what’s real and what’s present.”
US ramps up Pacific efforts
Murphy was also positive about Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters’ speech in Washington last December – in which Peters said New Zealand “unashamedly ask[ed] for the United States to engage more” in the Pacific – saying it was not seen as a critique of American neglect of the region but a signal of the opportunities to work together.
“We view ourselves as a Pacific nation to begin with, and have a lot of interests that are quite enduring in the Pacific, but it’s equally true that New Zealand has a particular expertise and we collaborate, we consult very closely with New Zealand on its neighbourhood so his message was quite well received.”
While the time and distance needed for Pacific trips was a challenge for top-level American visits, the US had ramped up its engagement, with Cabinet-level representation at last year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru and Vice President Mike Pence attending the Apec summit in Papua New Guinea.
Murphy said the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” being championed by the US was not about containing China’s influence in the region, but about developing partnerships and “mutual respect”.
“Our vision is a region that is very inclusive of all countries big and small, that no one particular country dictate the rules of the road but we all work together collaboratively with respectful partnerships, and we seek a good relationship with China itself.”
“It’s a complicated relationship and we do see threats posed to our national security, our national interest, and we want to engage China to work through those issues.”
However, he said China’s activities in the region, such as its so-called debt trap diplomacy and coercive behaviour, provided challenges which the US wanted to address by providing alternatives for Pacific nations.
“There are areas where we need to cooperate in our national interest – North Korea’s a good example, countering illicit narcotics is another just to cite two – but it’s complicated, it’s a complicated relationship and we do see threats posed to our national security, our national interest, and we want to engage China to work through those issues.”
Murphy said there was little substance to concerns about the use of the Indo-Pacific term instead of the Asia-Pacific, saying the former was a “more inclusive” phrase that recognised India’s role in the Pacific.
“Nothing has changed – at the centre of an Indo-Pacific approach from a US perspective lies ASEAN centrality and that convening authority that Southeast Asia has earned for itself. We embrace it, we support it, much like we with continuity and consistency embrace the multilateral architecture built around that centrality.”