HONG KONG -- New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta jolted her country's Five Eyes intelligence allies last week when she stressed a preference for a more independent stance on relations with China. And despite an international backlash and assurances from the prime minister that Wellington is committed to the spy network, Mahuta doubled down over the weekend.
"I said exactly what I meant," she said during a TVNZ appearance, in response to questions about her phrasing.
In a speech to the New Zealand China Council on April 19, Mahuta had spoken broadly about relations with the world's No. 2 economy and her country's largest trade partner. But it was her confirmation to reporters of New Zealand's hesitancy to join Five Eyes statements on human rights that caused a stir.
New Zealand, she said, was "uncomfortable" about expanding the remit of the intelligence alliance with Australia, Canada, the U.K. and U.S.
The episode, analysts say, opens a window on New Zealand's foreign policy mindset as it navigates the divide between China and the West, while facing growing calls for a tougher stance on human rights.
Last year, the country was conspicuously absent from a Five Eyes joint statement on Hong Kong, later making a separate comment. Some have called New Zealand the weak link in the network, with one senior intelligence official telling the Financial Times last year that the country was "on the edge of viability as a member" because of its "supine" attitude toward China.
Nikkei Asia learned that in at least one case, New Zealand received late notice ahead of a Five Eyes statement being issued, though it was unclear whether this was due to time differences.
In her speech to the China Council, Mahuta walked a fine line, hailing the mutual benefits of the relationship but also touching on points of contention. "As a significant power, the way China treats its partners is important to us," she said, apparently alluding to Beijing's repeated use of trade penalties after Australia blocked its 5G technology and questioned the origins of COVID-19.
She also noted Wellington's willingness to speak up on matters like Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang -- either with partners or on its own. "There are some things on which New Zealand and China do not, cannot and will not agree," Mahuta said.
Jason Young, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre, said her remarks included "statements that could be interpreted as being critical of how China has approached Australia, showing that New Zealand watches and expects China to show respect in engagement with other partners."
Nevertheless, Mahuta was pilloried in Australia and beyond.
Australia was "blindsided" by Mahuta's comments, according to the Sydney Morning Herald -- though joking references to the "Four Eyes" heard in Canberra in recent months suggest New Zealand's hesitancy was no secret.
Some others around the Five Eyes were quick to profess shock. Bob Seely, a Conservative lawmaker in the British parliament, said New Zealand was "in a hell of an ethical mess," while the Daily Telegraph's defense editor, Con Coughlin, referred to Jacinda Ardern as New Zealand's "tiresomely woke prime minister."
On the other hand, China praised Mahuta and played up possible cracks in the Five Eyes' bond. The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, wrote: "In sharp contrast with Australia, which tied itself to the U.S.' chariot, New Zealand has maintained a relatively independent approach on foreign policies, paving the way for the country to pursue policies that benefit its own economy and citizens."
In response to the controversy, Ardern insisted her government was not breaking away from the country's "most important" intelligence partnership. But she backed Mahuta by saying that "New Zealand also has an independent foreign policy."
Young pointed out that Five Eyes statements on human rights are a relatively new development. "It's only in recent years that it's evolved and we see a lot more joint statements," he said, noting New Zealand has joined some of them. But particularly when talking about human rights abuses, he said Wellington has "made statements in a number of other forums."
New Zealand's desire to act independently stems back further than its current relationship with China. In 2003, then Prime Minister Helen Clark declined to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, sending engineers instead.
Still, the island nation has been viewed as making political missteps regarding China. New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor -- who signed an updated free trade agreement between the two countries this year -- drew criticism for saying Australia should "show respect" to Beijing.
The debate over Mahuta's comments comes amid growing pressure on Ardern's government to take a stand on human rights, fueled by increased local media coverage of alleged abuses in Xinjiang. Last month, retailers in New Zealand began campaigning for the government to introduce legislation to stop products from forced labor being sold in the country.
Young said a number of New Zealand businesses were investing or partnering with companies "that were engaged in activities that could be deemed as problematic in terms of human rights abuses in China, and they have withdrawn their investments."
Rights groups are campaigning for the government to accept Uyghurs under the country's Refugee Quota Programme, asking legislators to "put words into action and help the Uyghur community."
Last week, legislators in the U.K. declared China's treatment of the Uyghur people "genocide." When asked whether New Zealand would follow suit, Mahuta said she is "open to getting advice."
During another TVNZ appearance over the weekend, Mahuta was asked whether she was prioritizing trade relations with China over ethics, as her critics have suggested. The foreign minister said New Zealand's relationship with China is significant, and in the areas "we can't agree on ... we want to be respectful, consistent, and predictable in the way that we treat China."
When asked by Nikkei Asia what action New Zealand will take on human rights, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson only said the country would "continue to speak out."
After multiple requests for comment on how New Zealand might address such concerns while bracing for potentially more aggressive reactions from China, the foreign minister's press office provided a link to the speech as their only comment.
How the Ardern government will apply its brand of "kind" governance to relations with China remains to be seen.
The risk of retaliation is real, according to Stephen Hoadley, associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.
Hoadley said New Zealand is "even more vulnerable to reprisals than Australia," noting there is "little that could be done."
While the government does have a policy of diversifying trade links, he is not optimistic that the China market can be replaced. As a result, he said Mahuta and the government are relying on "frank and friendly dialogue with China counterparts, and on appeals to common interests, to forestall reprisals."
At the same time, Hoadley argued that Mahuta's comments should not be viewed as "abandoning human rights."
"I see this as a further assertion of New Zealand's independent foreign policy that will most times converge with those of the Five Eyes," he said. "But, as Mahuta has hinted, New Zealand's automatic agreement should not be taken for granted by other members."