New Zealand has joined the debate over China’s spreading influence in the South Pacific, with a prominent critic of Beijing’s policies complaining of several break-ins at her home and office and a threatening letter.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an academic at New Zealand’s Christ Church-based University of Canterbury and the Wilson Center in Washington DC, related the incidents while she was giving testimony at an Australian parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference, mainly Chinese, in that country’s political system.
“I had a break-in in my office last December. I received a warning letter, this week, that I was about to be attacked. And yesterday I had a break-in at my house,” she said. “I had three laptops — including one used for work — stolen. And phones. Police are now investigating that,” she said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also ordered New Zealand’s security agencies to look into the incidents, which came after associates of Brady in China had been questioned by Ministry of State Security officials.
In September, the Wilson Center published a hard-hitting report authored by Brady called “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping” that details Chinese tactics to exert influence in the South Pacific through bodies like the Communist Party United Front Work Department (UFWD).
The UFWD pressures Chinese living abroad to conform to party doctrines, discredits or even neutralizes opponents of the regime and cultivates figures who can advance China’s objectives in foreign political systems.
One of its Pacific offshoots is the Australian Council for the Peaceful Reunification of China, which has donated to legislators in Canberra.
In 2017, it was revealed that Yian Yang, a member of New Zealand’s parliament from the then-National Party government, had been an instructor at a Chinese espionage school before he migrated.
As a parliamentarian, Yian had lobbied ministers to remove a security block on another person born in Chinese who was seeking an armed forces position. The ban, however, was not lifted.
Brady believes China is focusing on New Zealand because it is the most flexible member of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance comprised of the US, UK, Canada and Australia.
Anxious to preserve its key trade partnership, Wellington has taken a largely neutral position on such contentious issues as China’s reclamation activities and assertiveness in the South China Sea, though it is being pressured by Australia and the US to adopt a tougher stance.
The country also belongs to the ABCA Armies program, which aims to standardize military training and equipment interoperability between the Five Eyes members, and is a partner state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“Breaking New Zealand out of these military groupings and away from its traditional partners, or at the very least, getting New Zealand to agree to stop spying on China for the Five Eyes, would be a major coup for China’s strategic goal of becoming a global great power,” Brady wrote in her study.
Although it is a minor player in international affairs, New Zealand arguably has the greatest influence over the even smaller Pacific island nations: it is directly responsible for the defense and foreign affairs of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau and has cultural ties with Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu.
There is speculation that China may use its growing leverage in the Pacific to establish a naval base to counter the strategic advantage of the US’ military installations at Guam, in the Micronesian islands east of the Philippines.
A 2015 paper by Yu Chang Sen, deputy head of the National Center of Oceanic Studies at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, said that Beijing views Guam as the second of three offensive rings that the US had formed to strategically encircle China.
The configuration spreads out from Guam to Micronesia (including the Marshall Islands and the Marianas), to parts of Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu), and then down to Australia and New Zealand.
He said China was also anxious to protect its maritime access through what it terms the ‘South Pacific Line’, a passage stretching for 10,000 nautical miles from East Asia to South America, Australia and New Zealand. South Pacific islands are scattered across this sea lane.
Most Western analysts are skeptical that China would risk a confrontation with the US and Australia, which are in a better position to respond than China’s neighbors in the South China Sea. But if a confrontation does erupt, Fiji or Tonga, which are roughly in the middle of the US arc, could be battle grounds.
Fishing vessels, which China often uses as an advance fleet when starting to exert a territorial presence, already use the port of Suva in Fiji, as do satellite tracking ships used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The latter have also been spotted in French Polynesia and New Zealand, though probably just in transit. China is also trying to court influence in Micronesia, but these islands are mostly under US patronage.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (APSI), a regional security think tank that is partly funded by the Defense Department, called on Wednesday for New Zealand and Australia to reinvigorate their flagging diplomatic ties and present a common front against Chinese activities in the Pacific.
Noting that New Zealand made no mention of the prickly relationship between China and the US in its most recent defense white paper, ASPI said it would eventually have to make a choice between the two.
“It’s clear what’s happening: Australia is betting on a continued US role in the region — and its 2016 Defense White Paper says so — but New Zealand is keeping its options open,” security analyst Mark Thompson said.
“It’s impossible to say where each will be in five or 10 years, but, as the least committed of the pair, New Zealand is at greatest risk of becoming a Western ally with Chinese characteristics.”