Foreign Affairs

Sensitive foreign affairs briefing published online

A sensitive briefing prepared by foreign affairs officials ahead of the 2017 election and accidentally published online has lifted the lid on New Zealand's relationships with some of the world's superpowers, Sam Sachdeva reports

Handling unpredictability within the White House, a “cool and difficult” relationship with Russia, and sensitivities around China are among the topics traversed in a sensitive briefing prepared by New Zealand’s foreign affairs officials and accidentally published online.

The document also reveals officials had looked at providing military or counter-terrorism assistance to the Philippines as they fought Islamic State-affiliated militants within their own borders.

The details are contained in a draft ‘briefing to the incoming minister’ prepared by officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) ahead of the 2017 election.

The briefings are routinely produced by government agencies and departments, and outline the major issues a new minister is likely to face in his or her portfolio.

The documents are eventually released to the public, but with significant redactions made. However, Newsroom uncovered a draft version of MFAT’s briefing, without any information removed, during a simple Google search this week.

While Newsroom has not seen an unredacted version of the final version that went to Winston Peters, the sentences preceding and following the sections withheld from that document are identical to those in the draft briefing.

The draft document provides some useful insights into how foreign affairs officials viewed New Zealand’s relationships with foreign nations at the time, albeit with conclusions that would make sense to any knowledgeable observer.

In an apparent reference to Donald Trump, an MFAT briefing from 2017 mentions "continued unpredictability in the White House". Photo: Getty Images.

In a section on the bilateral relationship with the United States, officials said policy differences in areas like trade and climate change required “active management”.

“New Zealand would need to work with the US “in a way that reinforces our position as a trusted and reliable but independent partner, is clear about the material and political limits for New Zealand as a security burden-sharer and is agile enough to respond to continued unpredictability in the White House.”

Redacted parts of the briefing about the New Zealand-China relationship highlighted the need to manage risk from “sensitivities over issues which they regard as priorities” - later said to include defence and security matters such as the South China Sea, human rights, the country’s presence in Antarctica and growing interests in the Pacific, risks to the trading relationship, and rapidly evolving new areas like e-commerce and cybersecurity.

“New Zealand does not - and should not - always agree with China,” it said in a sentence deemed sensitive enough to be withheld from the public.

A standalone section on the South China Sea said China’s militarisation of disputed outposts “now stands out as one of the most concerning aspects of the situation”.

“The region remains braced for new provocations and there is potential for tension to re-escalate.”

The briefing also sheds some light on New Zealand’s relationship with Russia, a topic of controversy early in the Government’s term due to the poisoning of a former spy in the UK and New Zealand First’s (suspended) coalition commitment to work towards a free trade deal with the country.

Russian interference in the 2016 US election is cited as an example of the country's confrontational actions and disregard for international norms. Photo: Philippa Wood.

“Russia’s extensive international influence means we talk to them on matters of mutual interest, but its confrontational actions, unpredictability and disregard for international norms mean the bilateral relationship remains cool and difficult,” the briefing said, highlighting its promotion of disinformation, support for anti-establishment parties in Europe, and interference in the 2016 US election.

On the issue of FTA negotiations, officials noted that New Zealand’s intentions, particularly any suggestion it would look to revive talks, would be looked at closely by the EU and could be linked to its own trade deal discussions with our country.

“At the same time, we need to follow closely Europe’s commercial dealings with Russia to ensure we do not miss opportunities for an improved trading relationship.”

The document said officials were considering what support New Zealand could offer the Philippines government in what became known as “the Battle of Marawi”, a five-month-long conflict with Islamic State militants which began in May 2017.

Counter-terrorism or counter-violent extremism support, enhanced defence cooperation, and humanitarian support were among the options on the table, with officials noting any potential support from New Zealand had to be viewed through the prism of Rodrigo Duterte’s violent “war on drugs” (public records since the time of the briefing suggest no military or security assistance was ever offered).

A pecking order for phone calls

The unredacted briefing also sets out the prioritisation order for the minister’s calls to his counterparts in other countries.

At the top of the list, to be called within one week, were Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Singapore, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, and Fiji.

The next tier down, to be called within two weeks, included the US, China, Japan, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico.

In the bottom tier, with a recommended four-week timeframe for phone calls, were the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Chile, and Colombia.

A spokeswoman for Peters referred Newsroom to MFAT for comment. A ministry spokeswoman said the draft document, which had been removed after Newsroom made enquiries, had been tested on the website in October 2017

"Through human error, a search function feature was not disabled as it should have been. It was therefore able to be subsequently located in browser searches. This appears to be the result of historical publication settings that have been changed since that time."

The MFAT spokeswoman said the ministry would carry out a thorough investigation of the inadvertent disclosure. However, after reviewing the document's contents they believed they had become less sensitive with the passage of time.

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