There has been much reporting over the last several years about China expanding its influence in the Pacific. Most of the reporting centers around the disputed territories of the South China Sea. One area of Chinese influence that is not getting the attention it deserves is the increase of Chinese activities in New Zealand.
In October 2016, the Yuan Wang 5 pulled into Auckland Harbor. While it is classified as a research and survey vessel, it is, basically, a spy ship. While some citizens were alarmed at the ship’s presence, New Zealand authorities saw no cause for concern.
Last year, in September 2017, serious questions were raised about a New Zealand MP who was found to have studied and taught at universities tied to Chinese intelligence. Although he denies being a spy, Yang Jian was being investigated by New Zealand Security Intelligence Services (NZSIS) for his ties to Chinese intelligence services. The investigations began due to Yang’s time at the Air Force Engineering Academy of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the Luoyang Foreign Language Institute. The Luoyang Foreign Language Institute is known to be an “intake into the military intelligence services.” Yang both attended the institute, and later returned to teach several English language classes. He admitted to having been a member of the Communist party, and still supported the party even after emigrating to New Zealand and becoming a Member of Parliament. For a time, Yang was a member of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, which deals with matters such as immigration and arms control, as well as those in its title. Yang Jian is still a Member of Parliament.
Most recently, a Chinese national studying at the Auckland University of Technology was under investigation by NZSIS over concerns that his research could become a possible security threat if it was used for military purposes. The student, Hu Bin, is researching targeted transmission involving mobile devices. Commercially, Hu’s research could be used to reduce the amount of battery a device uses. However, the research could also be used to pinpoint an exact location of a mobile device, something that could be a security problem is used incorrectly, especially as a military technology.
As China continues to expand its power, it looks for areas to increase its influence. One area of interest is economic. China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner; the country reported a $3.6 billion goods and services trade surplus as of December 2017. China is looking to use its political influence to achieve unfair trade advantages. New Zealand also has untapped natural resources – specifically oil and gas – that is of interest to China.
Another area in which China might want influence with New Zealand is in the area of defense. Currently, New Zealand helps provide defense around the South Pacific region. While debate over China’s expansion into the South China Sea makes headlines, China is quietly expanding its reach beyond, most recently with a military base in Djibouti, home to the United States’s only base in Africa. There is evidence that China wants to include the South Pacific in its sphere of influence, using economic aid and investment, as well as their continuation of military build up on islands, both man-made and existing.
Possibly just as important as economics is intelligence. New Zealand is part of the Five Eyes agreement, a signals intelligence sharing alliance along with Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. Earlier this year, the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) released a report warning of Chinese influence in New Zealand. The report, put together during an Academic Outreach workshop by experts from North America, Europe, and Asia, called New Zealand “a soft underbelly, through which to access Five Eyes intelligence.”
In the CSIS report, it says “China has openly embarked upon a worldwide ideological war against the West to weaken and delegitimise liberal democracy.” By recruiting Chinese nationals living in New Zealand (and elsewhere), China looks to expand its influence through ideology, but the country is also using some of these individuals to gather intelligence. China is not just using covert methods in New Zealand; it is, as the report further says, using “[m]assive efforts to bring the New Zealand ethnic Chinese language media, Chinese community groups, and New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese politicians under CCP control, and efforts to influence their voting preferences.” It is not impossible to think China is also using its activities in New Zealand as practice for operations in other countries, including the United States. New Zealand currently needs China as a trade partner, but it needs to protect itself politically and economically, for the sake of its future. And New Zealand must defend itself against attacks on its political process and strategic partnerships. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she sees no problems with the Five Eyes partnership, and that “I take my steer on these matters from official channels, not opinions expressed at a workshop.” New Zealand remains vulnerable, and the other Five Eyes nations, as well as any of New Zealand’s allies, would do well to pay attention to Chinese activities there.