Tiptoeing around the dragon

Revealing that China cyber-targeted two parliamentary agencies in 2021 placed the government in a tricky position.

This difficulty has been widely acknowledged as New Zealand endeavours to stay on good terms with both the United States and its Western allies, and China.

There are those who argue New Zealand’s basic announcement on the attacks was feeble. Others see it as nuanced and realistic. In a world of Realpolitik, the government got it about right.

If New Zealand was to retain self-respect and international credibility, it had to make the statement and name China. At the same time, it differentiated itself from the stronger reactions of both the United Kingdom and the US on alleged Chinese cyber activity.

The US and the UK announced sanctions, all be they limited, against two Chinese individuals and the company supposedly working on behalf of Chinese authorities.

No doubt, the Chinese were, in the interests of diplomacy, warned about New Zealand’s looming statements on the cyberattack.

Everyone knows this country is heavily dependent on trade with China, its largest trading partner. Everyone knows the Chinese dragon is willing to puff blasts of retaliatory fire.

Of course, China is not the first power to intimidate and cajole, and it won’t be the last. The United States itself has a chequered history of throwing its weight around. France’s behaviour in 1985 over the Rainbow Warrior bombing in Auckland Harbour was arrogant and appalling. New Zealand was subsequently lied to and bullied.

Sometimes, Chinese action is not spelt out blatantly while still being pointed. Goods can be held up on wharves, paperwork found insufficient, tourism to the relevant nation discouraged.

Sometimes retaliation is more direct. After criticism of China by Australia, a 200% tariff was whacked on wine exports. Supposedly, Australia had been dumping wine, a fiction no-one believed.

China’s image, rightly, suffers from such tactics.

TikTok has come under increasing fire over fears that user data could end up in the hands of the...
TikTok has come under increasing fire over fears that user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government. Photo: Reuters
New Zealand is more vulnerable than Australia, enjoying less trade resilience.

China not so many years ago relied more on softer, persuasive power. It might now be gaining short-term advantage but losing longer-term sympathy in becoming more aggressive. It probably feels that being respected and feared counts for more than being liked.

It also believes the West is ganging up on it more and more, a stance New Zealand should recognise as it flirts with closer ties with its allies through Aukus. The United States Congress moving towards the forced sale of the Chinese-owned 2020s star of the internet, TikTok, adds to China’s sense of being picked on.

In the New Zealand parliamentary cases, the Chinese Embassy rejected the "groundless and irresponsible accusations" that China was behind the malicious cyber activity.

China, however, presents plenty of reasons to disbelieve such denials. It has also infiltrated influence across several fronts in New Zealand. Chinese language media, for example, in this country is far from independent.

Tellingly, the government secured a little safety in numbers with its announcement coming at the same time as those from the UK and US.

Usefully, New Zealand could eschew sanctions, pointing to the lack of a broader law allowing for autonomous sanctions. Legislation would be needed before sanctions could be applied.

Fortunately, both National and Labour share the same basic outlook on the need for balance.

Tiptoeing around the increasingly authoritarian Chinese dragon while maintaining essential ties to other liberal democracies and the United States is becoming ever more difficult.

This has become more complicated by Chinese assertiveness in Australia and New Zealand’s traditional sphere of influence, the Pacific.

For its part, China needs to be careful not to push New Zealand too hard. No matter the trade vulnerability, New Zealand must strategically be on the side of liberal democracies. China must allow tiny New Zealand at least the appearance of dignity and self-determination.

It remains useful for China to have this weaker link in the Western chain, a voice that can sometimes have just a little independence from its allies.