New Zealand has been the target of foreign interference by Chinese spies, according to a threat assessment report published by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) on July 11th, 2023. The report alleges that “There are foreign intelligence agencies who persistently and opportunistically conduct espionage operations against New Zealand.” It identifies the “most notable” form of foreign interference as the “continued targeting of New Zealand’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities…by groups and individuals linked to the intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China.” The report also highlights efforts by Iran to monitor critics of the Iranian regime in New Zealand and the effect of Russian disinformation campaigns on New Zealanders.
The report is noteworthy for being the first of its kind released to the public and for namechecking specific hostile states. The Director-General of Security, Andrew Hampton, writes in the foreword to the report that “The NZSIS sees enormous value in sharing more of our insights with the wider public.” Writing for The Conversation, Alexander Gillespie, a law professor at the University of Waikato, says the transparency is positive as it “demystifies aspects of national security” and “gives greater credibility [to the NZSIS].”
Although transparency is welcome, the report makes for disturbing reading. Tensions in the Pacific are already escalating at an alarming rate, following an episode of Chinese aggression in August against a Philippine ship delivering supplies to its military outpost in the South China Sea. The report contributes to mounting evidence that an emboldened China is keen to exercise dominance in the region, without regard for the national sovereignty of other powers.
This is not the first time that the relationship between New Zealand and China has frayed over issues of espionage. When details emerged of a secret security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands in 2021, the New Zealand Foreign Minister described the deal as “unwelcome and unnecessary” and a threat to the Pacific region’s security. In 2020, two Chinese-born members of parliament in New Zealand were forced to retire after allegations emerged that they had links to the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese intelligence agencies.
It remains to be seen how China will react to the frank and public accusations levied against it in the report. China’s longstanding policy is to deny all claims of espionage, and there is a risk that it will view the publication of the report as a slight. It is also likely that the United States, which shares secrets with New Zealand through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, will interpret the report as further proof of the need to curb China’s rise in the Pacific.
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