Five Eyes not as solid as it may look like
Published: Jan 14, 2021 03:27 PM

Labor Party leader Jacinda Ardern (front), the incumbent prime minister, addresses a press conference in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 18, 2020. (Xinhua/Guo Lei)

After New Zealand was absent from the recent joint statement by the other four members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance about China's Hong Kong policy, the Pacific nation was accused of abandoning the alliance to appease China. However, such a commentary published by the Washington Examiner newspaper on Monday is pure grandstanding. It overlooks New Zealand's strategic autonomy and diplomatic independence.

Unlike its South Pacific neighbor, New Zealand shows more reluctance to follow the US bandwagon. Instead, it pursues a diplomatic stance based on its own interests and its own judgments of right and wrong with individual cases. 

New Zealand is more inclusive and open-minded toward identity politics. It supports multiculturalism and repels racism. This is why there are fewer racial or cultural biases against China in New Zealand. Compared with other Western countries, it is relatively friendly to China. 

When the Washington Examiner hyped up that "New Zealand has matched the EU's political appeasement of Beijing," it was just making a stunt. Washington is upset because Wellington's move did not meet US expectations. If this can be called "appeasing China" or "undermining the Five Eyes," no other words can better describe such a mentality than Cold War mind-set.

It is even more ridiculous to claim such inclusive and independent China policies will come with "ever-increasing costs," as the Washington Examiner asserted. 

New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a free trade agreement with China in 2008. Over the years, the bilateral relationship has been stable as they seek common ground while reserving differences. Ideological barriers between the two are largely absent from their ties. 

New Zealand once voiced concerns over China's island construction in the South China Sea. But generally speaking, its rhetoric was not fierce. New Zealand has not completely taken sides with the US. Nor has it denied China's historical rights in the South China Sea. It has remained relatively neutral.

That being said, New Zealand, like Australia, is a Western country established by the Anglo-Saxons. Both were overseas colonies of the UK. Therefore, they face certain puzzles of national identity. 

New Zealand believes in Western liberal and democratic values. It does not totally understand or agree with socialism with Chinese characteristics. That's why it supported Australia in the feud triggered by a computer-generated cartoon showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. 

Yet when it comes to major issues of principle in terms of diplomatic and security strategies, New Zealand is averse to taking sides. 

Australia has strategic and diplomatic ambitions in the South Pacific region, which can be reached only with the endorsement of the US. So Canberra has been following Washington closely with almost every step while Wellington has not. 

New Zealand has no ambition in the region and thus has no high-stakes strategic or security demands from the US. Naturally, New Zealand dares to keep certain distance from the US Asia-Pacific strategy without worrying about US temper. 

China is New Zealand's comprehensive strategic partner and a major economic and trade partner. And clearly Australia is one of New Zealand's closest partners. When it offered to mediate truce between Beijing and Canberra, Wellington also showed, to some extent, its unwillingness to choose between the two sides. 

New Zealand can be regarded as the country with the most guts to say "No" to the US. It refused to allow the USS Buchanan, a guided missile destroyer, to dock in its port in 1985. The move sparked a diplomatic spat between Wellington and Washington. 

Consequently, the US downgraded their diplomatic status from that of a close ally to a friend. It also froze New Zealand out of the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) military alliance. 

Cracks, quarrels and disagreements are possible in the Five Eyes alliance. But the alliance won't easily crumble. In regards to historical disputes between the US and New Zealand over the USS Buchanan, the US did not want to punish New Zealand too harshly. Washington still treated the country as having aligned interests and avoided any punitive economic retaliation.

The Five Eyes are now bonded by their Anglo-Saxon roots, shared culture and values. They share a common stance when it comes to intensifying China-US competition, power shifts in the Asia-Pacific region, and they concern about the uncertainties that could be brought about by China's development. But given the divergences in their domestic policies, strategic needs and ties with China, their practical strategic choices are quite different in reality. 

All members of the Five Eyes are sovereign countries with their own ways of defining their interests and strategic goals. Their strategic capabilities are also very different. Generally, they will keep coordinating with one another in the future. But in cases of specific issues, they will hold their own positions. They will ultimately maintain independence to serve different political and economic interests.

The author is adjunct researcher at the Center for Australian Studies, China University of Mining and Technology. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn