China’s influence back in the spotlight

As an Australian senator has resigned over his links to China, some in New Zealand are pointing to a newly-released document as highlighting concerns about the country’s influence here. But there is debate over the significance of China’s efforts. Sam Sachdeva reports.

In the end, it was a case of when, not if, for Australian politician Sam Dastyari.

The Labor senator announced on Tuesday he was quitting the Senate, following weeks of controversy about his links to Chinese donors that made his position untenable.

But Dastyari’s resignation is part of wider concern in Australia about Chinese influence in the country’s politics; last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled a proposed crackdown on espionage and political donations.

Some have argued New Zealand should also be alert to the same threat - and it appears our intelligence agencies may well be.

The SIS and GCSB briefing to the incoming minister, released last week, said New Zealand was “not immune to the threat of espionage by foreign states, nor to foreign efforts to interfere with the normal functioning of government or the rights of New Zealand citizens”.

The briefing specifically mentions attempts in the last year “to access sensitive government and private sector information, and ... to unduly influence expatriate communities”.

“We’ll have our New Zealand way, but we cannot afford to be timid - we do need to face up to it.”

Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose paper outlining Chinese efforts to influence media, politicians and companies in New Zealand has sparked debate within the country, said the briefing was a clear reference to China’s attempts to influence its expatriates here.

“There is no other country that’s engaging in major influence activities on New Zealand, so there is no other candidate if you like.”

Brady believed the decision to leave the section on foreign espionage was a deliberate move by intelligence agencies to make Kiwis aware of the threat.

“I think it’s a message, it’s a contribution to the debate, and an indication that the SIS and other intelligence agencies are doing their job, they’re giving advice to the Government, and within the limits of their role, they are making that advice available to the New Zealand public.”

While the new government was being “very very cautious” in its response to the issue, Brady said.

She was confident security agencies were working behind the scenes, but said the Government had to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“We are not distinct from our allies, we are experiencing the same pressures, but our government is avoiding making any comment or statement on that…

“We’ll have our New Zealand way, but we cannot afford to be timid - we do need to face up to it.”

'Normal bilateral relationship'

Auckland University associate professor Stephen Hoadley said he was “personally not very concerned” about the extent of Chinese influence in New Zealand.

“Assuming what we’ve seen in the media is all there is, this is quite a normal bilateral relationship: every country tries to influence not only the other government but also the general population of the other country to create a favourable image.”

While Brady’s research did suggest “an unusual amount of influence”, the individual pieces of evidence could be put forward as cases of normal diplomacy of influence, Hoadley said.

“The Chinese are expanding their soft power as well as their hard power, and what they’re doing in New Zealand is probably fairly consistent with what they’re doing in other countries.”

Chinese citizens had proven to be responsible investors in New Zealand, while the country was seen by the Government as a “valued partner in investment and trade”.

He said Australia’s more aggressive approach was perhaps due to a “sense of vulnerability to the Asian threat”, given it was bombed in World War II while New Zealand was more distant.

However, the country’s approach could serve as a guide for New Zealand as it decided whether to make any law changes of its own.

“If they work out, New Zealand might follow; if not, New Zealand might stand aside and say, well OK, that’s Australia, they’ve got different circumstances.”

Politicians downplay threat

National leader Bill English said “the exercise of foreign influence” was not new to New Zealand, pointing to efforts in the past by Russia, the US and China, as well as Australia.

“Of course there is a pretty pervasive, potentially pervasive influence from Australia where they own our banks and insurance companies and there is a lot of tension around that, where Australia would prefer we didn’t regulate our own financial sector, they would prefer to do it from Australia.

“That’s a much more immediate offshore influence, I think, than any of the others.”

English said the role of security agencies was in part to guard against excessive foreign influence, and he believed they were doing their jobs.

“There is nothing new about foreign governments trying to influence what happens in New Zealand but you have intelligence agencies to ensure that you know what is going on, and if necessary, someone can deal with issues that arise.”

“I think the agencies are reflecting what is an international concern by a lot of countries...that particularly with cyber threats it is easier now to kind of get into countries and influence things."

GCSB and SIS Minister Andrew Little said many countries were dealing with attempts at foreign influence, and he was confident New Zealand’s security agencies were “up to the mark” in taking the issue on.

“I think the agencies are reflecting what is an international concern by a lot of countries, a lot of democracies that particularly with cyber threats it is easier now to kind of get into countries and influence things in a way that we’ve seen in elections in the US, France, potentially in the UK as well, and I think that’s what they’re reflecting.”

Little said he would not go into the details of which communities were the subject of attempts at influence.

However, he said concerns about Chinese influence in Australia, including reports of political candidates with links to Chinese intelligence agencies, did not need to be mirrored here - possibly a reference to National MP Dr Jian Yang and his ties to Chinese intelligence, as first reported by Newsroom.

“We want to have a Parliament that is as reflective of the New Zealand population as possible. We need people of ethnic Chinese descent in our Parliament, we have that at the moment, so we’ve got to be a little bit careful that we don’t buy into some of the issues raised in other countries as being a negative for New Zealand.”

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