One of Canada’s closest allies has declined to back Canada in its ongoing dispute with China, despite at least one personal call to its leader by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Although New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is often seen as a natural partner for Trudeau’s progressive brand of politics, and her country is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with Canada, the Pacific nation appears reluctant to publicly criticize China over the dispute.
Michael Kovrig and a second Canadian, Michael Spavor, were arrested in China in December after Canadian officials detained technology giant Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver on an extradition request from the U.S. She was granted bail and is awaiting court proceedings.
New Zealand’s neutrality in the dispute stands in contrast to the position taken by most of Canada’s other allies and the other members of the Five Eyes, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.
New Zealand has employed a low-key version of the pressure campaign China used against Canada to effect Meng’s release, after the small Pacific nation banned tech giant Huawei in 2018 from involvement in its 5G network.
Memorandums for Trudeau
Through access to information, CBC News obtained memorandums prepared for Trudeau as he made outreach calls to world leaders seeking public statements of support in the Huawei dispute.
The memorandums relate to calls made following the arrests of the two Canadians and through to the end of January, a period when Canada was trying to show China its actions were isolating it in the world.
“We are asking partners to reinforce that: China should have confidence that Ms. Meng will be treated fairly in Canadian courts. For Canada, this is an exclusively judicial matter — not a political one,” reads the memo for Trudeau’s Jan. 16 conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It said Canada wants its allies to support the position that Michael Kovrig should be covered by diplomatic immunity.
Allies rally round
Some calls were fruitful. A Jan. 30 memo prepared for a follow-up call with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, reminded Trudeau that shortly after speaking to Tusk on Jan. 19 about China he tweeted out the EU’s support, echoing the call to release both men.
Canada also received support from the U.S., Germany, the U.K., France, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and the three Baltic nations.
“The German Government is convinced 🇨🇦 will ensure that Meng Wanzhou has a fair, unbiased and transparent judicial procedure. For the two Canadians who have been arrested in China, we urge that they be treated fairly and in compliance with the rule of law.” <a href=”https://t.co/5ittUnJhsX”>pic.twitter.com/5ittUnJhsX</a>
Not all allies were equally helpful. Calls to the leaders of Italy, Finland, Japan, and Singapore produced only tepid statements or none at all.
A government official speaking on background said Canada initially struggled to get backing from a country it might have expected to count on: Australia.
Despite Canadian pressure and criticism from Australian media, Foreign Minister Marise Payne remained mute on the issue for weeks. Then on Dec. 29, an open letter was published by more than 30 of Australia’s most respected academics and analysts working on Chinese issues, calling on her government “without further delay to support Canada’s call for the immediate release of these two detainees.”
The following day Payne expressed her “concern” over the detentions, but still stopped short of calling for their release.
If Australia’s response was disappointingly lukewarm, New Zealand has been even less helpful.
Good phone call with PM <a href=”https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@JustinTrudeau</a>. Both Canada and EU stand by the rule of law underpinning the global order. EU calls for the release of the Canadian citizens detained in China.
A spokesperson for New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told CBC News that “New Zealand and Canada have discussed the detention and legal treatment of Canadian citizens in China, and the need for all countries to respect judicial procedure and rule of law.”
That “all countries” language differs from the comments of other Canadian allies that focused on the need for China to respect due process, while emphasizing that Canada was already doing so.
A memorandum prepared for Trudeau’s Jan. 11 call with Ardern, detailing “Suggested Talking Points” for the call is redacted in its entirety, citing an exemption to Canada’s Access to Information Act.
N.Z.-China ties close but strained
New Zealand’s reluctance may reflect its close links with China. It backed Beijing’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, they have had free trade since 2008 and Mandarin is taught in New Zealand’s schools.
But a recent dispute that has strained those close ties, and the desire not to strain them further, may also be a factor.
In November, New Zealand joined the U.S., Germany and others in excluding Huawei from contracts for its new 5G network. Huawei had previously worked on New Zealand’s 3G and 4G upgrades.
2018, the official “Canada-China Year of Tourism,” ended on a sour note because of Huawei. And 2019, the “China-New Zealand Year of Tourism,” began on an equally sour note for similar reasons. The opening ceremony and a proposed visit by Ardern to China were postponed by the Chinese side.
Since then, Ardern has appeared to soften the position taken by her spy chiefs. “There’s been no final decision here yet” on Huawei, she said in February, suggesting the Chinese company still had a chance to bid on 5G.
But China’s ire was sparked not only by the Huawei ban, but also by a growing realization in New Zealand that the country has been complacent about Chinese government influence.
Many public figures in the country have rallied to the defence of Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Her 2017 research paper Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping, revealed China’s success at putting Beijing-friendly figures into influential positions.
Subsequent burglaries of her home and office, as well as apparent tampering with her car, prompted New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service to sweep her home and office for recording devices.
The Hoover Institution in the United States also produced a report on Chinese penetration of New Zealand, noting that Australia and New Zealand are more vulnerable than other Western countries, but “New Zealand’s government, unlike that of Australia, has taken few steps to counter foreign interference in its internal affairs.”
Canada’s spy agency has also expressed concerns about New Zealand. Last May CSIS published China and the Age of Strategic Rivalry, which was remarkably critical of New Zealand.
“New Zealand provides a vivid case study of China’s willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country,” said the report.
“Chinese Communist Party leadership regards New Zealand as an exemplar of how it would like relations to be with other states in the future. The PRC’s political influence activities in New Zealand have now reached a critical level,” it added, detailing China’s use of universities, business ties, political donations and the local Chinese community to obtain leverage over public policy in the island nation.
“Some of these activities endanger New Zealand’s national security directly, while others have a more long-term corrosive effect.”
The report also described New Zealand as the “soft underbelly” of the Five Eyes network, suggesting its membership in the group made it a more tantalizing target for Chinese espionage.
The report embarrassed New Zealand and forced Ardern to issue a denial. “I have had no indication that our Five Eyes membership is under question, from Canada or any other of our partners, nor have I heard that it has been raised with any of my colleagues.”
A Canadian official speaking on background said Canada has no desire to publicly criticize or embarrass New Zealand.
Canada’s approach “includes seeking public statements of support,” the official told CBC News, “but also includes private engagement and advice,” adding that New Zealand counterparts had shared with the Canadians some of their own lessons learned from dealing with the Chinese.
This story originally appeared on CBC