Away with the fairies? A poke in the eye for four NZ allies (and a likely review of the White House guest list) as China policy is refined

With consummate timing, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has stirred up another controversy days ahead of the first visit of her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne.  New Zealand, she says, doesn’t want to use Five Eyes as the first point of contact on a range of issues that existed outside of its remit.

The NZ Herald quoted her as explaining:

“That is a matter that we have raised with Five Eyes partners that we are uncomfortable with expanding the remit of Five Eyes.”

Our Five Eyes partners, Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, are bound to be disappointed, if not dismayed.

They may well wonder if our government is away with the fairies.  The title of Mahuta’s speech was “He Taniwha He Tipua, He Tipua He Taniwha – The Dragon and the Taniwha”.

We were fascinated by that title.

In 2009, academic writer Manying Ip published a 360-page book exploring  how two very different marginalised groups in New Zealand society – Maori and Chinese – had interacted over the past 150 years.

She called it – would you believe? – The Dragon and the Taniwha.

The book, the result of a major grant from the Marsden Fund, examines the relationship between the tangata whenua and the country’s earliest and largest non-European immigrant group for the first time.

Wasn’t this worth a mention by the Minister?

But the more critical issue is the future of Five Eyes and the prospect of New Zealand slightly dimming its activities.

Mahuta said New Zealand would much rather prefer to look for “multilateral opportunities” to express its interests on a number of issues.

This is odd, because Five Eyes is a “multilateral” opportunity according to this definition:


Agreed upon or participated in by three or more parties, especially the governments of different countries.     

How many parties does Mahuta believe are involved in Five Eyes?

Her policy positions, included in a speech to the NZ-China Council, have reverberated around the partners – Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom – and will raise alarm bells in Washington DC.

The new government has inherited a traditional Labour Party suspicion of five-eyes intelligence work, with the notable exception of Helen Clark who revelled in the vast amount of information made available to NZ, far beyond the capacity of its own agencies.

Other than traditional intelligence, invariably viewed by Labour as “spying”, five-eyes information ranges from transnational crime to people smuggling, international tax-dodging to Customs and border control issues.

Since the 1984 Anzus rift triggered by David Lange, NZ officials over decades have laboured to restore NZ’s reputation as a reliable partner.  A Canadian intelligence summary recently concluded NZ was the “soft under belly” of the relationship.

The irony of this is that government agencies involved in intelligence – including the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, Foreign Affairs, Defence and the intelligence agencies – only recently carefully prepared a high-level brief for Cabinet ministers explaining the functions of five-eyes and the national benefits for NZ.

This followed an earlier similar session when the departments and agencies spelled out to ministers how China had radically changed under Xi-Jinping and the risks for NZ.

Ministers were advised that Beijing had already deeply embedded itself in NZ society at every level.  On the other hand, ministers have had their ears bent by food exporters fearful of losing the China market.

Mahuta’s reference to “we” in her speech indicates she speaks for the Cabinet.  The PM’s office had her speech in advance.

But her expanded sortie into Maori mythology and the domain of the supernatural partly answers how she wants to shape NZ’s foreign policy.

“My intention with this speech is to outline what New Zealand’s contemporary relationship with China looks and feels like. When I think about this relationship as referred to earlier I liken it to the respect a Taniwha would have for a Dragon and vice versa.

“Taniwha are endemic to Aotearoa but can trace their whakapapa across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean – Te Moana nui a Kiwa. Taniwha are protectors or guardians, often of water, and hold dominion over rivers, seas, lands and territories. Deeply steeped in culture, they are spiritual and one with nature.

“They symbolise a sense of guardianship for our people and our land and a strong belief in self.

“And like the Dragon, they are powerful, auspicious, and embedded in our epistemology. They have many forms, and are a symbol of leadership, prestige and strength, and are to be revered.

“We are two peoples – with characteristics and symbolism unique to our respective countries.

“I see the Taniwha and the Dragon as symbols of the strength of our particular customs, traditions and values, that aren’t always the same, but need to be maintained and respected.

“And on that virtue we have together developed the mature relationship we have today.” 

The willingness of the dragon and the taniwha to engage and have regard for one another was not simply a matter of economic convenience, competition or prowess, Mahuta contended.

“The Taniwha, like the Dragon, has the ability to understand the essence of its environment and changing conditions – as well as the ability to adapt and survive. After all as custodians and kaitiaki, Taniwha are intrinsically linked to the wellbeing and resilience of people, the environment and the prosperity from which all things flourish.”

She said this (by which she means invoking mythological creatures) was the perspective she brought to New Zealand’s relationship with China – “an intention that New Zealand is respectful, predictable and consistent in the way we seek to engage in the pursuit of our long-standing and deeply held values and interests.”

“On many occasions New Zealand has raised issues privately with China. Where there is tension between the Dragon and the Taniwha, we take a consistent and predictable approach, through diplomacy and dialogue.

“Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights.

“At times we will do this in association with others that share our views and sometimes we will act alone. In each case we make our decisions independently, informed by our values and our own assessment of New Zealand’s interests.”

Already our partners are viewing this as a cop-out.

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern is keen to visit the White House and chat with President Joe Biden.

But her Foreign Minister’s remarks suggest she will be pushed well down the visitors’ schedule.

The speech raises concerns about governance, too.  Not all New Zealanders recognise the existence of taniwha, in a spiritual world or otherwise.

Some will wonder if the RNZAF’s new Boeing P-8A Poseidon will need equipment to detect them.

But whether or nor the great majority of Kiwis have much regard for Maori animism and want it to be incorporated in government policy, Minister Mahuta has made it clear:  this is the way forward.

3 thoughts on “Away with the fairies? A poke in the eye for four NZ allies (and a likely review of the White House guest list) as China policy is refined

  1. What poor timing just before Anzac Day!
    What next? Substitution of Aotearoa for New Zealand so that 25 April becomes Aaac Day?
    Arrrrk! This Labour lot can’t even re-write history correctly: see what our country was called in te reo version of Te Tiriti that the rangatira signed – Nu Tireni.


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