OPINION: Chinese diplomats place great store in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, a collection of maxims from the 1950s that are said to guide contemporary Chinese foreign policy.
One of the principles is non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.
As Shakespeare would have put it, that principle has been ‘’more honoured in the breach’’ by China’s recent behaviour towards New Zealand and a variety of other countries.
According to Andrew Little, Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), “Chinese state-sponsored actors were responsible for the exploitation of Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities in New Zealand in early 2021.”
* Exporters wary of repercussions from calling out China for cyberattacks
* New Zealand joins US, UK, EU to condemn China for malicious cyberattacks
* NZ stands with partners to censure China on cyberattacks
* Condemnation of China’s involvement in cyberattacks plays into global tensions
* Jacinda Ardern says differences with China are ‘becoming harder to reconcile’
* US charges 5 Chinese citizens in global hacking campaign
Translation into plain English – China is interfering in New Zealand’s internal affairs.
Little then had a ‘’speak truth to power’’ moment – “New Zealand is today joining other countries in strongly condemning this malicious activity undertaken by the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) – both in New Zealand, and globally.”
China’s Microsoft Exchange operation began in January 2021 and is a truly worldwide cyber operation conducted by hackers working at the behest of its Ministry of State Security.
In addition to New Zealand, others that have issued statements criticising China include: Australia, Japan, the US, the European Union, and Nato.
This episode highlights two realities.
First, our leading trade partner, China, is in an era of profound strategic competition with the US, the state whose economic and military power has underpinned security in our region since 1945.
One clear casualty of the US-China rivalry is Australia’s relationship with China.
Beijing views Canberra’s April 2020 call for an independent World Health Organisation investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic as a trojan horse tactic, aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party-State.
A slew of economic sanctions was subsequently imposed on Australian exports to China.
This should trouble us. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta recently referred to Australia as “our closest foreign policy and security partnership”.
But how can we have our closest ally’s back when China is our top trade partner, constituting 20 per cent of our total exports? If that’s not a problem from hell, I don’t know what is.
Second, however exalted the status of the non-interference principle in the Chinese diplomatic lexicon, it should be blindingly obvious by now that China’s internal political problems are increasingly being projected abroad.
Two examples will help clarify the point.
When the Nobel Prize Committee in Norway awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese citizen and critic of the Chinese Communist Party-State, the proverbial freezer that was to be later used on our Aussie mates made its first appearance.
China placed sanctions on Norway for six years.
These were eventually lifted after Norway issued a joint statement with China stating that it “attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relationship”.
And, it should be noted, Liu was unable to receive his award because he was incarcerated, and subsequently died in Chinese custody.
Closer to home, events in Auckland in June and July 2019 amount to a no less real example of the projection of China’s internal political problems on to other countries.
In the run-up to planned protests for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests in China, Chinese Vice Consul-General Xiao Yewen met with Auckland University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack.
According to emails obtained by Newsroom, a request was made by the Chinese official to cancel the event, presumably because its symbolism represented a repudiation of the current regime in Beijing.
In late July, tensions between two groups of University of Auckland students over the political situation in Hong Kong, which had been rising for about a week, culminated in a short, verbal and physical altercation between two students.
Remarkably, after the event, on August 1, 2019, the Chinese consulate in Auckland seemingly expressed its support for the group opposing the Hong Kong protests.
Subsequently, on August 5, MFAT officials met with Chinese embassy staff to reiterate the importance of freedom of expression in New Zealand and its universities.
The Norwegian and Auckland examples illustrate the difficulty China has in adhering to its own non-interference principle, and the pressure that China’s trade partners are increasingly facing on human rights and democracy.
The root of the problem is the asymmetric power possessed by China and the accompanying vulnerability that is caused by smaller states’ disproportionate dependence on exporting to China.
And unless we stop talking and start diversifying our economy as a national security priority, we leave the door wide open to future great power pressure and coercion.
*Nicholas Khoo is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. He specialises in Chinese foreign policy, Asian security, and Great Power Politics.