English denies China security breach as Washington criticises and Peters goes to Beijing
By Richard Harman (author)
Both Labour and National politicians were last night vigorously objecting to claims before an American Congressional Committee that New Zealand has got too close to China.
The claims have surfaced as Foreign Minister Winston Peters winds up three days of talks in Beijing.
The most dangerous claim is that the former Prime Minister, Bill English, passed on briefings he had received from New Zealand intelligence agencies to National MP, Jiang Jang, who, when he lived in China, worked with Chinese intelligence services.
“It’s completely wrong,” English told POLITIK last night.
“There is no way he (the witness, Peter Mattis) could have known how I interacted with the intelligence agencies as Prime Minister.
“This guy (Mattis) can’t possibly come to that point of view based on anything to do with reality.”
The evidence was given in early April in a hearing of the US-China Review Commission, a Congressional Commission, charged with monitoring the United States relationship with China.
The witness who made the claim, Peter Mattis, is a China-watcher who was at the time employed at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC think tank that has historical connections with the CIA.
However, he has since left and is now employed as a Research Fellow, China Studies, at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Mattis also told the Commission that “one of the major fundraisers for Jacinda Ardern's party has United Front links”.
This claim may have originated from a paper by the Canterbury University academic, Anne-Marie Brady who has claimed that a river of campaign donations to governing parties was used to extend Chinese influence in New Zealand through the United Front Work Department.
The United Front is a Government agency which works with overseas Chinese to extend China’s influence.
The New Zealand Labour Party has kept up a regular inter-change with China's Communist Party and two years ago, Labour's current President, Nigel Haworth, visited Beijing at the invitation of China and met with President Xi Jinping.
But speaking to POLITIK last night he said he was baffled as to who the United Front donor might be.
“We genuinely have no idea to whom that reference is being made,” he said.
“We comply absolutely with the Electoral Commission's requirements for donations, so everything over $15,000 is meticulously reported, and people can go and look at that and see.
“There is no major Chinese donor.”
The tone of the Washington hearing would not have surprised New Zealand academics at a symposium held in Auckland last month and organised by Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies and Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
A key participant was the Washington Centre’s Senior Adviser and Director of its Southeast Asia Program, Amy Searight.
In a release issued by Victoria University Searight, who before joining CSIS was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia at the US Department of Defence, was reported to have told the audience that New Zealanders at the conference had no “appetite to want to choose between the close relationship between the United States and the close relationship with China.
“There was relative optimism about China’s trajectory and the role it’s playing in the region and globally. And just a sense that there wasn’t really trade-offs that had to be grappled with,” the release said.
Appearing before the Congressional Commission, Searight said the United States did not have a free trade agreement with New Zealand.
“Obviously we walked away from TPP," she said.
“We haven't exempted them in the steel and aluminium tariffs.
“I heard an earful about this when I was just in New Zealand two weeks ago.
“But I think there may be a disconnect between the political level and the bureaucratic level. I mean the government.
“The bureaucratic level is really turning on China and sees its connection with the United States and Australia as really significant in that sharpening of their policies, their thinking about China, and we heard a lot of thinking that was encouraging.”
The Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, David Capie, tweeted this comment suggesting it was the "more interesting" of all the comments made at the Commission.
There is indeed a view in Wellington that New Zealand policy towards China is somewhat unformed at present and that it is possible to get differing views on how the relationship should be managed in the future from different branches of the bureaucracy.
POLITIK is aware of views among some friendly diplomatic missions in Wellington that there is a belief that the New Zealand Government is complacent about China and its influence.
But English said that when he was Prime Minister he had never encountered any criticism from the United States of New Zealand's relationship with China.
“This will apply to the current Government as well, when New Zealand is offshore, by far the most common discussion is other people wanting our view, because they think we have a different slant on China.”
What is changing though, as evidenced by the Washington hearing, is that the United States is becoming much more hawkish on China as is Australia.
That means what English once called our “truly independent foreign policy” will be questioned more in both Washington and Canberra.
But Peters was upbeat about the relationship with China in a statement issued after his trip there.
He held a formal meeting and a working lunch with China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi and also met with other high ranking Chinese officials, including Politburo member and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, and the Minister of the Communist Party International Department, Song Tao.
“Our discussions were wide-ranging, covering all aspects of our bilateral relationship. We reviewed the ongoing growth of our trade and economic relationship, and we were pleased to confirm dates for the next round of our FTA upgrade discussions, which will take place next month,” said Peters.
“We had excellent discussions on issues of direct relevance for peace and security in the Asia-Pacific.
“We talked at length about recent developments in North Korea, and resolved to stay in close touch as we continue to encourage all parties to find a path to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, including through the North complying with all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions,” he said.
The Chinese themselves offered little detail on the talks.
Their Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, told the Ministry’s daily briefing on Friday that “China-New Zealand ties are developing with a sound momentum.”
“ We hope that Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Peters' visit will help enhance political mutual trust between the two sides, expand mutually beneficial cooperation to a wider range of fields, and move forward China-New Zealand relations," he said.
“We will release relevant information later.”
Peters was the first mInister from the Ardern Government to visit China but the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, expects to visit there later this year.
Undoubtedly Washington will be watching that visit closely.