Intelligence officials are discounting Helen Clark’s pronouncement that NZ has lost its “independence” through its participation in the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement that links NZ with Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. Her enthusiasm as prime minister for the flood of intelligence is well remembered by the intelligence community.
Rather, they say, in an increasingly troubled world, the arrangement is extending the flow of information and provides Wellington with a stronger voice. It has become a useful tool for promoting shared values and it remains an international forum in which NZ can play a significant role in shaping policy
Earlier this month, as China announced its final assumption of power in Hong Kong, the group issued a rebuke as Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra criticised China for undermining the “one country, two systems” framework that was meant to determine Hong Kong’s future for 50 years after its handover from British rule in 1997.
When Wellington said it couldn’t agree in time, due in part to the time differences, the other countries went ahead without NZ whose position was acknowledged and accepted. A State Department official described the action as about co-ordinating diplomatically to address a human rights issue of fundamental importance to all four countries, and about the long history of shared value.
Kori Schake, at the conservative US think tank American Enterprise Institute, said the effort was less about the use of intelligence collaboration as a public policy instrument than fast action by the liberal countries most directly affected by China’s intimidation policy. In part this is due to the torpor of the rest of the international community formations such as the G7, the G20 and the United Nations itself, hamstrung by veto powers in the Security Council.
With a return of east-west tensions, the intelligence club has taken on a heightened significance. NZ officials appreciate the wider perception in the NZ community that the country is far from conflict and wants to rub along with the rest of the world but avoid alliances, making it difficult for a government of any political stripe to admit to enthusiastic intelligence cooperation.
At the same time, countries with a less-than-benign interest in NZ have spotted opportunities to take advantage of this attitude – defined by some as naivety – to carve out interests in the community, business and politics.
Some felt they might take advantage of a government formed by significant numbers with a background in student politics and party employment. Intelligence agencies always take the long view, spending months, sometimes years, assessing likely movers and shakers.
Intelligence veterans have been amused by Radio NZ’s disclosures of “interventions” during the Lange Labour government when the old Czech embassy was broken into by the SIS looking for codes. The operation required – and obtained – approval from none other than Lange himself, friend of neither alliances nor the intelligence world in an earlier life.