Why was the AirNZ plane turned back?
By Richard Harman (author)
Was the decision by China to turn back the Air New Zealand flight to Shanghai the first visible evidence of China’s anger at New Zealand’s ban on Huawei?
That was the question that the foreign affairs community were asking themselves last night.
Possible retaliation from China over the Huawei ban was an issue addressed by the Australian and New Zealand Foreign Ministers when they met on Saturday – but neither conceded that there had at that point been any retaliation for both countries’ ban on Huawei.
Opposition Leader Simon Bridges, however, was quick to suggest that the Chinese move might have political motivations.
“We need to know what has happened here. Is it part of the ongoing deterioration in relations between this NZ Govt & China?” he tweeted yesterday afternoon.
Diplomats in Wellington were surprised by the Chinese move.
One said he was unaware of China ever doing anything like that previously.
Stephen Jacobi ,the executive director of the New Zealand China Council, told POLITIK he found it hard to believe the decision would have been related to Huawei.
There were suggestions that Air New Zealand may have made some error in its paperwork.
In a statement to The Herald, the airline said: "It is normal process to get a flight plan cleared by local authorities prior to departure and this was done on this occasion and was approved by Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, it was discovered during the flight that this particular aircraft did not, in fact, have the necessary permit to land.''
The “FlyerTalk” website suggested the aircraft was leased by Air New Zealand and was using new Rolls Royce engines for the first time on the Shanghai route.
But it is precisely when China cracks down on technical infringements of its laws that observers worry there is an ulterior motive in the background.
The Director of Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, David Capie, suggested that what the incident showed was that New Zealand no longer had a special relationship with China.
In other words, all things being equal previously, China would have found a way to let the plane land.
There is little doubt that the New Zealand decision last October to ban Huawei from supplying 5G equipment to Spark has angered China.
It is an open secret in Wellington that the move was made to comply with pressure from New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners, Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia.
China increasingly regards Five Eyes as a threat.
An article last week in the state-owned “Global Times” described the Five Eyes alliance is a group of English-speaking countries with white people forming a majority of the population.
“It is also a ruling circle set up by the US and UK in the early stages of the Cold War,” it said.
Commenting on the possibility that Japan might soon join Five Eyes, the article said: “If Japan gets into the Five Eyes fold, they will together build a system of intelligence exchange mechanism against China.
“China should improve its information security mechanism, develop intelligence and research work, and try its best to defuse the threat that the Five Eyes alliance will pose to China..”
The article was written by a professor from the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army, so it is likely to represent official Chinese views.
Speaking at a joint press conference on Saturday with Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters was asked if he expected that China might implement trade measures against New Zealand because of the Huawei decision.
He dismissed the suggestion.
“When people ask me questions framing China in that way, my response is always to say I don’t believe that’s the way they’re going about it because they promised not to act that way," he said.
“The second thing is that we’ve made it very clear to the Chinese government and the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand that the Huawei decision was a decision not made by the Prime Minister or any member of Cabinet or any politician.
“To do that would have been against the law in this country for a start and there needs to be a grasp of the way our system works.”
This has been a consistent line from both the Prime Minister and Peters – that the decision was made by the Director of the GCSB and not the Government.
Whether the Chinese share that distinction is another matter. Payne was more forthright about the Australian decision. She conceded it had been made by the Australian Government.
“In terms of the decision that we made in relation to our 5G network, again, based on very clear advice from key agencies in relation to national security and Australians expect their government to make decisions in relation to protecting their national security I think in that way,” she said.
Just as Winston Peters is able to claim that the Government did not make the Huawei decision, the Chinese Government will be able to deny any involvement in the decision not to let the plane land.
But the suspicion that there is more to it than that will linger.