The foreign ministers of New Zealand and Australia have faced questions on Five Eyes, China and deportees at the first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic

Statecraft has trumped spectacle at a meeting of the trans-Tasman foreign ministers, with Nanaia Mahuta and Marise Payne downplaying recent conflicts between New Zealand and Australia as they talked up the “warm and close relationship”.

The visit to New Zealand by Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, has come just days after Mahuta’s revelation that New Zealand was “uncomfortable” with efforts to expand the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – leading to some asking whether Aotearoa should remain a member.

Australia’s deportation of New Zealand citizens who have spent most of their life across the ditch has also served as continued irritation. The Australian government’s decision this year to cancel the passport of an alleged terrorist with dual citizenship, in theory forcing her to New Zealand where she had not lived for 20 years, angered Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But Mahuta described the trans-Tasman relationship as “a warm and close one, it’s kind of like whānau”, as she noted the significance of Payne’s visit coming so close to Anzac Day. 

“Our people stood in the world wars, shoulder to shoulder in those battles because we knew that we were friends and allies, because we had so much in common, and this has endured to this day.”

Payne said her ability to make the trip as part of the trans-Tasman bubble was testament to how well Australia and New Zealand had handled the pandemic, while the areas of agreement between the two countries vastly outnumbered any differences.

“Importantly each of us is a proud sovereign nation with our own independently held views. That is a good thing and we would not have it any other way.”

Asked about Mahuta’s comments regarding Five Eyes, Payne said the organisation was “a vital strategic alliance that is key particularly to our security and intelligence interests and has been for many years now”.

“My view is that countries will choose to address issues of concern in whichever forums they determine appropriate and consistent with their national interest, but our respect for each other … is enduring and continuing and one which we particularly in Australia value enormously.”

While some of the issues which the alliance focused on took place “in the shadows”, others had been dealt with publicly and openly due to the shared values between the liberal democracies.

“My view is that countries will choose to address issues of concern in whichever forums they determine appropriate and consistent with their national interest, but our respect for each other … is enduring and continuing and one which we particularly in Australia value enormously.”

Payne also sidestepped a question about how New Zealand should approach its relationship with China, saying “one thing I have learned in my role … is not to give advice to other countries” while noting Australia’s “clear-eyed” approach to its own ties with the superpower.

“We pursue cooperation where it is in our interests … but 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, and an enduring partnership requires us to adapt to those new realities, to talk with each other, and what we have offered is a clarity and consistency and confidence.”

She was similarly circumspect on the Belt and Road Initiative, saying it was “entirely a matter for New Zealand” what it did with its own memorandum of agreement despite her federal government’s decision to rip up a similar deal between the Victorian state government and China for its inconsistency with the country’s foreign policy.

Mahuta said the Government here had not yet finished its development of a Belt and Road work programme, and it would decide how to deal with the non-binding agreement once that was complete.

Asked about Australia’s approach to deportations, Mahuta declined to repeat prior criticism of Peter Dutton’s phrase that the country was “taking the trash out”, saying: “We’ve certainly moved beyond those particular comments, and the things that were needed to be said were said at the time.”

However, New Zealand would continue to raise its concerns about the way in which Australia was dealing with the matter.

“We do believe that people who, for the most part, spend their lives in another country and relate to their country are by and large, self-identifying as to where they belong.”

On the specific case of the alleged terrorist Suhayra Aden, Payne said both countries acknowledged there were “a number of complexities” in how to deal with the woman and her children.

“We are working through those issues in the spirit of our bilateral relationship, particularly in relation to children, and they’re matters upon which we will continue to work together.”

‘Used to be our best mates. Not now’

While Payne shied away from overt criticism of New Zealand’s Five Eyes remarks, Alexander Downer, the longest-serving foreign minister in Australian history, was less circumspect as he took a shot at Mahuta on social media for “downgrading” New Zealand’s role in the network.

“And they upgraded FTA with China in February while China was imposing sanctions on Australia. Used to be our best mates. Not now.”

In an opinion piece for the Canberra Times, national security academic and former Australian director of security intelligence Clive Williams said Ardern and Mahuta were “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 cooperation, 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.”

With New Zealand “very minor contributors to the Five Eyes intelligence relationship”, cutting the country out of the network would not cause too many intelligence concerns for the other members, while it could lose the benefits of “a close security partnership balanced very disproportionately in its favour”.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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